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Fallen soldier gets Silver Star; credited with saving Marines

Apr. 19, 2013 - 04:43PM   |  
Sergeant 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook received the Silver Star Friday, more than three years after he died Oct. 7, 2009, of wounds sustained in eastern Afghanistan in the Sept. 8, 2009, Battle of Ganjgal.
Sergeant 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook received the Silver Star Friday, more than three years after he died Oct. 7, 2009, of wounds sustained in eastern Afghanistan in the Sept. 8, 2009, Battle of Ganjgal. (Courtesy of Charlene Westbrook)
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FORT BENNING, Ga. — At long last, Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook had his day.

The fallen soldier received the Silver Star here on Friday, more than three years after he died Oct. 7, 2009, of wounds sustained in eastern Afghanistan in the Sept. 8, 2009, Battle of Ganjgal. Three Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in the six-hour melee, which sparked a national outcry after U.S. forces on the ground were denied air and artillery support.

Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, presented the award to Westbrook’s wife, Charlene, and their sons Zachary, Joshua and Joseph.

Westbrook, 41, is credited with leading his team under furious volumes of rocket, mortar and machine-gun fire after U.S. and Afghan forces were ambushed approaching Gangal, a small mountainside village near the Pakistan border.

“Without cover or concealment, he initiated a series of daring bounds to establish support-by-fire positions in an attempt to break contact with the enemy,” his Silver Star citation states. “He intentionally exposed himself to direct enemy fire in order to direct and bring supporting fire back upon the enemy, and he marked enemy positions with tracer fire, enabling the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Border Police to eliminate several enemy positions.”

Westbrook was wounded in the right cheek and neck during the battle, but continued to fight until blood loss prevented him from continuing. His actions “helped prevent the complete envelopment of the coalition forces and the saved the lives of his fellow soldiers, Marines and Afghan counterparts,” according to his citation.

The battle resulted in a Medal of Honor for Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer in 2011, and numerous Bronze Stars with “V” devices for other service members who fought that day. However, Westbrook and his commanding officer in the battle, former Army Capt. Will Swenson, were not recognized. Swenson still hasn’t been; an Army official confirmed he was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but his nomination is said to be stalled at the White House.

Charlene Westbrook said before the ceremony that waiting for the Army to decide what to do about her husband’s heroism was a long, frustrating process, and credited Swenson with helping to push it through. Swenson attended the ceremony, watching quietly from the second row of the auditorium in a dark suit, dark shoulder-length hair and a thick beard. He sat next to Jonathan Landay, a civilian journalist who was embedded with the unit when the ambush occurred.

After receiving the Silver Star on behalf of her husband, Westbrook’s wife made a brief, emotional speech, saying he was a humble man who wanted to be an infantryman his whole life. She recalled a conversation they had at Walter Reed as he struggled to recover from the wounds that ultimately led to his death.

“The very first words out of his mouth were, ‘You’re a sight for sore eyes,’ she said. “The second thing was, ‘How are my soldiers?’ That was him, always worried about his soldiers.”

Killed in the battle that day were four members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton. At least eight Afghan troops and an interpreter also were killed.

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