In October 2009, in a low-lying valley of northeast Afghanistan, 53 American troops stationed at Combat Outpost Keating were ambushed by 350 Taliban insurgents descending from higher mountainous terrain.
Over the next 12 hours, the troops fought off insurgents armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and other high-powered weaponry.
CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper ’91 remembers hearing the news of the battle while at the hospital for the birth of his first son. By the time the fighting ended, eight American soldiers were dead and 27 were wounded, making it one of the deadliest battles of the 11-year war in Afghanistan.
“I was holding my new son and here eight other sons were taken from this earth,” Tapper said.
The scene inspired Tapper to write a book, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” which he will present to community members in a talk this afternoon in Filene Auditorium.
Tapper, along with war-zone photographer and inaugural Roth Distinguished Visiting Scholar Jim Nachtwey ’70, will meet with 45 graduate students for lunch and a panel discussion. After the talk in Filene, Tapper will meet with the Dickey Center’s War and Peace Fellows for dinner.
Stoney Portis MALS’13, a former officer who is featured in Tapper’s book, said he and other members of the Dartmouth Graduate Veterans Association organized Tapper’s visit to increase campus dialogue about the war in Afghanistan. Portis was commander of the Bravo Troop, 3rd squadron, 61st cavalry regiment in Afghanistan, a unit of roughly 100 soldiers stationed in the northeast corner of the country.
Tapper said he wanted to tell the stories of the troops connected to Combat Outpost Keating, including those of the men that died and the others who fought to defend the vulnerable and remote location. He began writing the book in 2010 while working full-time as ABC News’ senior White House correspondent.
Portis was among the soldiers stationed at Combat Outpost Keating that resisted heavily armed Taliban insurgents.
Although Americans sustained heavy casualties in the battle, Portis said the group killed approximately 100 members of the Taliban and injured about 150 more.
The soldiers’ vulnerability at the outpost served as a case study of why troops should not be stationed in remote locations and helped to expedite the movement of troops to areas with greater population densities, Portis said.
“There was a lot of debate going on at the time this attack occurred shortly after the national elections in Afghanistan when President [Hamid] Karzai was re-elected,” he said. “The colonels above me had been talking about closing the outpost for six or eight months as part of a strategic shift to move troops out of outposts in remote terrain, but it was hard to shut it down during the elections because there needed to be soldiers to make sure people were able to vote.”
Tapper finished “The Outpost” in two and a half years after interviewing 225 soldiers, army personnel and civilians. The book was published in November and is currently on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
In order to balance writing the book and his job at ABC, Tapper said he wrote and conducted interviews “nights, weekends, holidays, vacations.”
“I wanted to know who those eight [fallen soldiers] were, what it was like to face that kind of challenge, why the outpost was put in that very vulnerable place,” Tapper said. “I set out to find out on my own, and that became my book.”
While Tapper said he was pleased to add to the national conversation about the war in Afghanistan and the policy decisions that put American troops in vulnerable positions, he was most gratified by the positive responses he received from the soldiers featured in the book and the family members of those killed in the battle.
“I would be lying if I said I don’t look at my own work and see mostly the flaws in it, parts I wish I could have done differently,” Tapper said. “But I think the troops and families appreciated how much work went into it and were happy to have me tell the stories.”
On Feb. 11, Clinton Romesha, a former staff sergeant featured in Tapper’s book, was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for his role in defending Outpost Keating, taking enemy fire to protect his fellow soldiers and recovering bodies of the fallen. The medal is the nation’s highest military honor.
Although Tapper has worked in Washington, D.C., since 1992, he had originally planned to pursue a career in the arts.
He enrolled in film school at the University of Southern California after college, but dropped out after his first semester.
“I thought I wanted to go into film, but I found myself sitting in class, listening on my walkman to the Clarence Thomas hearings,” Tapper said. “It was more interesting to me. Washington made more sense.”
Tapper moved back home to Philadelphia and tried to become a syndicated political cartoonist, but was unsuccessful. He moved to Washington to serve as a press secretary for Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, then a new Pennsylvanian congresswoman and family friend. Tapper later worked at a public relations firm in Washington and Handgun Control Incorporated, now the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, before starting his career in journalism at the Washington City Paper.
Tapper wrote freelance pieces for a number of prominent national news outlets, but his first big break came in 1998 when he wrote an story about his experience going on a date with Monica Lewinsky.
The article, which combined hard news about the Lewinsky scandal and playful dating anecdotes, criticized Washington’s obsession with political scandals.
He became the Washington correspondent for Salon and later hosted a short-lived program on CNN called “Take Five,” where he first experienced broadcast journalism. He said he enjoyed reporting with visuals and sound rather than describing news in articles.
“I got the bug,” Tapper said. “I liked printed word, but I realized the next thing I wanted to do was to be a full-time TV reporter.”
Tapper spent time at VH1 and the Sundance channel before moving to ABC in 2003. He also drew a weekly comic strip from 1994 to 2003 called “Capitol Hell” that ran in Roll Call.
Tapper moved to CNN in January and will begin hosting his own afternoon news program in March. The program will feature guests and report on a range of topics, including business, health, entertainment, sports and politics.
His first guest will be classmate Shonda Rhimes ’91, creator and head writer of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” among other productions.
Tapper hopes his show will cover news in addition to pop culture in “a smart way,” which he said is not always the goal of broadcast journalism.
A history major and visual arts minor at the College, Tapper was “very focused on his classes,” he said.
He drew a daily comic for The Dartmouth and was a member of Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity. He was also involved with the Roth Center for Jewish Life and Hillel, though he mainly used the spaces to socialize with friends, he said.
Daryl Kessler ’91, Tapper’s freshman year roommate, remembers Tapper as driven and talented.
“Tapper was a serious student but a funny guy, fun to be around,” he said.
He was also “a very good cartoonist who was not afraid to take on some of the hot issues on campus in his comic strip,” Kessler said.
David Hillman ’91, Tapper’s friend and roommate during their semester abroad in Israel, described Tapper as meticulous and hard-working.
He said he remembered Tapper as an undergraduate who would act on whatever bothered him, from political issues to problems with Dartmouth Dining Services.
“He had a spine and a backbone,” Hillman said. “It’s easier to take the path of least resistance, but that’s not what he was interested in.”
Tapper is the author of two other books, “Down and Dirty: the Plot to Steal the American Presidency” and “Body Slam: the Jesse Ventura Story.”