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Public Affairs : Discussing the Outpost

Lesson on Outpost Keating from those who were there, author who wrote its story

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor

WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 6, 2013) — Jake Tapper, CNN chief Washington correspondent, reunited with some of the Soldiers featured in his book “The Outpost” during two classroom forums Feb. 26.

The book tells the history of Combat Outpost Keating and the events surrounding the fateful attack by 400 Taliban insurgents on roughly 53 Soldiers stationed there.

Tapper said he generally covered the politics of war from the White House and Pentagon, but that changed when he saw the report on the attack at Combat Outpost Keating on television.

“It was a poignant moment where I was holding my newborn son while hearing about eight other sons taken from this earth and I wanted to know more,” Tapper said.

This was a life-changing moment, though he didn’t know at the time, and Tapper would spend the next two-and-a-half years pursuing the story.

“First it was just going to be a story about the battle, but it became the whole history of the camp,” Tapper said. “It became a very important project for me emotionally and professionally.”

Capt. Chris Cordova, from Keller Army Community Hospital, was a squadron physician assistant at Combat Outpost Keating and said reading the book was a surreal experience.

“I lived it, and to read it in the third person is a different experience,” Cordova said. “While reading I kept thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ but I had seen it myself so it felt surreal.”

Having experienced much of the latter part of the book, Cordova was captivated by the history in the first two sections he hadn’t known.

“For me that was the most gripping and intriguing accounts,” he said.

Cordova was interviewed and consulted several times by Tapper during the writing process, and like the author, was concerned by how graphic the retelling would be.

“I had that concern because I became close with some of the mothers who lost their sons. Reading the details of the wounds and discussing that sort of thing could be too much for a grieving mother to read,” Cordova said.

Ultimately, Cordova said Tapper got a full account with surprising accuracy.

“In my mind, Jake is probably the single most knowledgeable person about Combat Outpost Keating on this planet,” Cordova said. “While he was writing it, Jake would call and ask, ‘Did I get this right, is that right?’ I was actually surprised by how accurate he was.”

During the first class, Tapper provided an oversight into how he developed the book, which was followed by a Q&A with the officers.

The second class, held at the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning, was designed to answer three broad questions, but this agenda was kept hidden from the cadets.

The result made it seem more like an informal conversation among the battlefield officers, reliving events and offering field-tested advice which the cadets hurriedly scribbled into notebooks.

“For me it was a rewarding experience to see the light switch turned on when some of the cadets see the consequence of poor decisions,” Cordova said.

Along with Cordova and Tapper, the discussion included Maj. Aaron Swain, Maj. Jason Wayne, Capt. Michael Harrison and Maj. Jonathan Silk. Capt. Stoney Portis, a Class of 2004 graduate, was the only member not currently instructing at West Point. He will join the faculty in the Department of English after completing graduate studies next year. “I’m very honored to be here on behalf of my Soldiers for their sacrifices and everything they’ve done,” Portis said. “It makes it more meaningful having achieved a level of success that is worth sharing and all the more so when others can learn from your mistakes.”

Like Cordova, Portis said being interviewed and then reading the book was an emotional experience.

“On one hand it was almost painful to relive, but on the other it was a bit cathartic; helping the healing process,” Portis, who was the last troop commander at Outpost Keating, said.

To hear the stories of Soldiers from different units all contributing their own part of history at the same outpost was eye-opening for Class of 2013 Cadet Chad Vessell and his classmates.

“Mr. Tapper’s book and presence at the forum drew these individuals’ stories together and provided our class with a broader understanding of how the success or failure of a mission depends on all of the actions and decisions made by each unit that took part,” Vessell said.

Class of 2013 Cadet Chris Broderick said the advantage cadets get from the MX400 course is that it focuses entirely on leadership, and the forum complemented those studies.

“There were many insights on multiple levels,” Broderick said. “This happens often in MX400, Jake Tapper and the panel took it to another level though. It happens less frequently in other classes as there are other academic priorities.”
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Capt. Stoney Portis, a Class of 2004 graduate and the last troop commander at Outpost Keating in the Nuristan Province, tells his story in detail in the final chapters of “The Outpost.”

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Capt. Chris Cordova, from Keller Army Community Hospital, was a squadron physician assistant at Combat Outpost Keating and said reading the book was a surreal experience.

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Maj. Aaron Swain joined Jake Tapper, CNN chief Washington correspondent, Feb. 26 during the MX400 class discussion on "The Outpost."

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Cadet sat around Jake Tapper, CNN chief Washington correspondent, and the West Point instructors as they discussed in an informal and conversational manner about the events at Outpost Keating.