Sergeant 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook will receive the Silver Star for heroism in Afghanistan in 2009. He died Oct. 7, 2009, one month after being wounded during a six-hour battle in Ganjgal, Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Charlene Westbrook)
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A soldier who was wounded in Afghanistan and later died will receive the Silver Star, more than three years after a battle that sparked a national outcry about why U.S. forces on the ground were denied air and artillery support.
Sergeant 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook will receive the valor award — third only to the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross for soldiers — sometime this spring, said Lt. Col. Justin Platt, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. The fallen soldier will join a long list of service members who have been honored for heroism in the Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, including Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who in 2011 became the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the nation’s top valor award.
Westbrook was recommended for the award by Army Capt. Will Swenson, said the fallen soldier’s wife, Charlene. The Army, which has not yet released Westbrook’s award citation, also has recommended that Swenson receive the Medal of Honor. That nomination is said to be stalled at the White House.
Charlene Westbrook said the Army notified her of the decision about her husband’s award in February. A ceremony likely will be held in April at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga., near Fort Benning, she said.
“That’s how his career started, with him being in the infantry,” she said. “His whole heart was always in the infantry.”
Westbrook, 41, was with 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kan., and deployed with Swenson to Kunar province’s Sarkani district in 2009 to train and advise Afghan Border Police. On Sept. 8, 2009, they were ambushed along with Afghan forces and members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan, in the Ganjgal Valley.
The resulting firefight lasted at least six hours, beginning shortly after dawn. They braved rifle and machine-gun fire repeatedly, while Army officers at a nearby tactical operations center repeatedly denied their requests for fire support. Westbrook was gravely wounded in the right cheek and neck, and medically evacuated from the battlefield. He died Oct. 7, 2009, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington due to medical complications from his wounds.
Killed in the battle that day were four members of Marine ETT 2-8: 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.
What about Swenson?
The approval of Westbrook’s award raises questions anew about what may happen with Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination. He is credited with facing a hail of enemy fire in a U-shaped ambush, leading survivors to safety and coordinating air support that eventually helped calm the battlefield, according to military documents outlining the battle. During portions of the battle, he worked alongside Meyer.
In January, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., told Military Times that several “high-level sources” had told him that Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination has been at the White House since at least July awaiting President Obama’s approval. No explanation has been given for the delay, which has frustrated rank-and-file troops watching the situation unfold.
In addition to Meyer receiving the Medal of Honor, two other Marines received the Navy Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor — for actions in the battle. At least nine other service members received the Bronze Star with “V” device.
Charlene Westbrook said Wednesday that it was difficult to watch her husband’s heroism go unrecognized while the nomination “has been sitting on someone’s desk for months.” A father of three sons, he was on his last deployment before retirement. His older brother, Sgt. Marshall Westbrook, was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2005, while serving with the New Mexico National Guard.
“It means that his bravery and courage will never be unnoticed,” his wife said of Westbrook’s award being approved. “He has had his name in articles and things like that, but this confirms what I’ve known all along: He deserves to be awarded this medal.”
In February 2010, the Army announced it had determined “negligent” leadership at the battalion level contributed “directly to the loss of life” on the battlefield that day. Officers involved repeatedly refused pleas for artillery support from U.S. forces on the ground and failed to notify higher commands that they had troops in trouble, the investigation found. The officers were with Task Force Chosin, an Army unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y.
Interviewed after the incident, Swenson unloaded on the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers who didn’t send help and the second-guessing he experienced while requesting fire support, according to a copy of his witness statement.
“When I'm being second-guessed by higher or somebody that's sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?" Swenson told investigators, according to redacted documents reviewed by Marine Corps Times. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander. I want that f---er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f---er.”
The Army has insisted his criticism had nothing to do with his initial award package being lost. Rather, it disappeared in Afghanistan “due to failures at multiple levels in tracking and processing the award, and that high turnover of personnel and staffs in theater contributed to the problem,” said Army Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force.
Meyer has blasted the delay in getting Swenson the Medal of Honor. In an autobiography released last fall, he pointed out that Combined Joint Task Force 82, commanded by then-Army Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, was charged with handling Swenson’s award packet while investigations were ongoing in 2009.
The packet, the book said, “vanished into thin air, forgotten by everybody in the chain of command.” Meyer and co-author Bing West suggest Swenson symbolizes the Battle of Ganjgal and the battle “conveyed the wrong message: failure to support advisors, failure to provide artillery support, failure to deliver timely air support, et cetera.”