LOWER TOWNSHIP — Cindy Woodard already knew how her son died at a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Now she knows more about how he lived while serving there in the U.S. Army Cavalry.
Sgt. Michael Scusa, a former resident in the Villas section who enlisted in the Army right after graduating from Lower Cape May Regional High School in 2005, was shot though the neck during a brutal firefight with insurgents Oct. 3, 2009.
Woodard already knew that. She met the body at Dover Air Force Base. She read an account of her son’s death in the book about that fateful day, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” written by Jake Tapper.
But Woodard, who now lives in Philadelphia, learned a lot of new things on Monday when she went to the White House for the presentation of the Medal of Honor to former Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha.
The ceremony at the White House gave the nation’s highest award for valor to Romesha, 31, of North Dakota, for killing 10 insurgents — including three who breached the outpost’s perimeter — recovering fallen soldiers, radioing in a key air strike, and continuing to fight even though he was wounded. Scusa served alongside Romesha in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scusa fought alongside Romesha that day during a 13-hour attack that left eight Americans, three Afghan service members and 150 insurgents dead. The 53 U.S. troops were outnumbered at least 6-to-1 by Taliban fighters who held the high ground in the mountainous region near the border with Pakistan. The Army base, Outpost Keating, was in a valley.
Woodard got to hear plenty of stories about her son from his fellow soldiers who survived, came home, and were there to witness President Barack Obama place the medal around Romesha’s neck.
Her favorite story had to do with glitter: Care packages would often come from the U.S. and one had women’s hair spray with glitter. Why this was sent to soldiers in a combat zone is anybody’s guess. But when Scusa was out of the barracks, a fellow soldier sprayed all his gear and weapons with the glitter.
“When he went outside he was all glittery. They said how pretty he was. He wrestled the guy who did it, so he got glitter all over himself. He got him back,” Woodard said.
Another story she heard in Washington concerned her son going to meet the parents of his then girlfriend, Alyssa, a Native American from Arizona. The soldier recounted how Scusa was going to dress in his uniform to impress the parents.
“He said, ‘Michael, your uniform has a Native American head on it. We did all that stuff to them years ago, and you’re going to show up with an Indian head and you’re a Calvary scout.’”
Woodard laughed recalling the story. Her son did win over the parents, though they confided later to Woodard “they weren’t too sure about him at first.” He married Alyssa and they had one son, Connor, who is now 4.
Some of the stories were more somber. Woodard found out her son confided to another soldier that he didn’t think they were going to make it home. This went against everything he had been telling her.
“He always said, ‘Mom, don’t worry. We’re the best of the best,’” she said.
Woodard also learned her son was up until 2 a.m. the night before the attack, which began just before 6 a.m., talking with other soldiers about their families and their future plans. Scusa wanted to fly helicopters and was looking into getting into an Army training program in Alabama.
“He was supposed to be home on leave, but a helicopter was coming with supplies and he wanted to get all the information about that (helicopter) school,” Woodard said.
The outpost was constantly taking enemy fire, but that morning the soldiers knew something was different. About 30 minutes into the fighting Scusa ran back to the barracks to get more ammunition. After leaving the barracks with the ammo, he was hit by a Taliban sniper.
“He died instantly,” Woodard said.
It was two days before Scusa’s 23rd birthday. Woodard later met the soldier who killed the Taliban sniper with a shot to the head.
“I told him, ‘Thank you. If Michael isn’t here, then he doesn’t deserve to be here,’” said Woodard.
Woodard said she was impressed with Romesha, who saved many lives that day but is still mourning the eight comrades he couldn’t save. Romesha invited the eight families, including parents, wives and children, to the ceremony at the White House and another at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
Romesha blew off an invitation from the first lady to attend her husband’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night so he could host a pizza party for the families. Woodard said she felt honored just to be invited and more honored when Romesha accepted the medal on behalf of the eight who died that day.
“He’s very genuine and humble. Somebody mentioned the eight and you could see tears well up in his eyes. His lip was quivering,” Woodard said.
Woodard, like most of the loved ones left behind, still has questions. She wonders why the post was placed in a valley surrounded by mountains. She wonders why their rations were reduced to one meal and three bottles of water a day. She heard helicopter pilots were afraid to fly into the valley. If the supply helicopter came earlier, her son could have gone on leave and might be alive today.
But Woodard also said her son died doing what he wanted to do. He wanted to “fight for what was right.” She said he dreamed of a military career, constantly watching the Military Channel and the History Channel, working at Naval Air Station Wildwood in Erma during high school, and running through his Kentucky Avenue neighborhood with a backpack full of bricks to get ready. He enlisted without even telling his mother.
He died with honor. Looking back at a comrade, who was also leaving the barracks with ammunition during the firefight, Scusa uttered his last words seconds before he died.
“He said ‘Are you ready?’” Woodard said. “He loved military history. Now he’s part of it.”
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