By Nick Duke, Fort Benning Bayonet & Saber newspaper April 24, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga. (APRIL 24, 2013) -- The family of Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook was presented with his Silver Star for gallantry, and his second Combat Infantryman Badge, April 19, during an emotional ceremony at Derby Auditorium here.
Westbrook died Oct. 7, 2009, as a result of wounds suffered Sept. 8, 2009, when insurgents attacked his unit in the Ganjgal Valley, Afghanistan.
With the award coming nearly three and a half years after his death, Westbrook's wife, Charlene, said she felt an immense sense of pride in her husband.
"I would say that I'm so very proud of him, and that he's my hero," she said. "Actually, he'd probably grimace and say, 'No, I'm not a hero. I'm just doing my job.'"
The Silver Star is the Army's third highest award for gallantry, behind only the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.
When the family received word that the Silver Star would be posthumously awarded, it selected Fort Benning as the site of the ceremony, a selection that was intended to reflect Westbrook's love of and dedication to not just the Army as a whole, but also the Infantry.
"I met my husband when I was 13, and he asked me what I wanted to do for a career after we graduated high school, and I said, 'I don't know. I'm 13 years old. I'm not thinking about my future,"' Charlene Westbrook recalled. "But he, from the very beginning, said, 'I'm going to be an Infantryman.' He came to basic training here, and this place meant so much to him. He was so proud to have been an Infantryman for 22 years."
The family also took the opportunity to attend a basic training graduation before holding the Silver Star ceremony.
"It is fitting that we honor the courage and sacrifice of one of our fallen warriors shortly after we gathered to celebrate the entry of new Soldiers into our Army -- fitting because what those young men and Sergeant First Class Westbrook have in common is that they volunteered to answer our nation's call to duty in a time of war," said Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster, commanding general, U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, during his remarks at the Silver Star ceremony.
"It is fitting that we are part of a living, historical community in which we do our best to preserve the legacy of courage and selfless service of those, like Kenneth Westbrook who have gone before us," McMaster said. "Fitting because we want those who knew and loved Sergeant First Class Westbrook to know that he will not be forgotten -- that we will continue to honor his sacrifice and remember the example that he set for all of us."
The battle that led to Westbrook's death occurred Sept. 8, 2009, when a joint force of American and Afghan personnel that Westbrook was working with were caught in an ambush.
According to the Silver Star award citation, while taking fire from rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine gun fire, Westbrook intentionally placed himself in the line of direct enemy fire without cover and concealment in an effort to engage targets and direct his Afghan peers.
He was wounded during the battle, but did not succumb to his injuries for 30 days.
Jonathan Landay, a McClatchy Company reporter who was embedded with the joint force, said the scene was one of the worst he had ever seen.
"Within a few minutes, it was just an unbelievable kill zone," Landay said. "All the guys who were in there had been veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had never been caught in such hellacious fire. It was coming from three sides."
Westbrook was preceded in death by his brother, Sgt. Marshall Westbrook of the 126th Military Police Company of the New Mexico Army National Guard, who died Oct. 1, 2005, while serving near Baghdad, Iraq.
While the Westbrooks are no longer actively involved in the Army, Charlene Westbrook said the award helped them to feel like they were still a part of the Army family.
"I just want the Army to know that we've been an Army family for 22 years, and when the Army finally gave us this award and it came to light, it almost feels like the biggest family hug we could ever feel," she said. "It makes me feel proud to be part of the Army family."
McMaster echoed those sentiments during his remarks.
"To Sergeant First Class Westbrook's family, we will never forget your sacrifice," he said. "You are forever members of our Army family. We are grateful for the opportunity to be with you and to honor our brother-in-arms. For those of us who have not experienced such a profound loss, it is difficult to imagine what you have endured -- the loss of not one, but two Westbrook sons who volunteered to serve their nation and made the ultimate sacrifice."