Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth W. Westbrook

Remember Our Heroes

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M.

SFC Westbrook was assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.; died Oct. 7, 2009 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., of wounds suffered Sept. 8 when insurgents attacked his unit in Ganjigal Valley, Afghanistan, using small arms and indirect fire.

Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth W. Westbrook had just handed over his retirement papers when he was told about the stop-loss order that would keep him in the Army for another combat tour, this time in Afghanistan.

After 22 years in the Army and two tours in Iraq, he accepted his fate as a “no-go” with the same good humor he displayed during any number of unexpected turns, his wife said.

“He laughed,” said Charlene Westbrook of Fountain. “He says, ‘Well, you know, at least this will be my last hoo-ah’.”

For a family that already had suffered the deaths of two relatives in Iraq — including Westbrook’s older brother Marshall A. Westbrook of New Mexico, in 2005 — that final “hoo-ah” opened a new chapter of grief and sacrifice.

Westbrook’s unexpected tour began Nov. 11, 2008 — Veterans Day. It ended 10 months later, when enemy fighters trapped Westbrook’s team and the Afghan National Army soldiers they were training in a massive Sept. 8 ambush in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

Three Marines and a Navy Corpsman were killed in the firefight, along with eight Afghan soldiers.

Wounded in the cheek and shoulder, Westbrook died Oct. 7 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. — not of his injuries, doctors told his family, but from a rare reaction to a blood transfusion Westbrook received at a battlefield hospital in Afghanistan.

“They called it graft-versus-host disease,” said Charlene Westbrook, sitting near a family portrait in which a smiling Westbrook is flanked by his wife and three sons, 21-year-old Zachary, 18-year-old Joshua and 14-year-old Joseph. “He died from the blood that was supposed to save his life.”

Politicians and military officials warned that America’s renewed commitment in Afghanistan would exact a heavy burden on war fighters and their families. That proved painfully true in Colorado Springs, where the dwindling death toll in Iraq over the past year was offset by the intensifying war in Afghanistan.

As of last Memorial Day, Fort Carson hadn’t lost a single soldier in Afghanistan. Today, the death toll stands at 50.

Westbrook, a former Fort Carson soldier who deployed from Fort Riley, Kan., was one of at least five others with local ties who died in past year in Afghanistan. Mountain ambushes and roadside bombs were the chief killers.

Family members described Westbrook as a committed father and husband who loved hunting and fishing. His sons laughed about his sense of humor and praised his expert touch with beef stew and pot pies.

“He was a fun guy,” Charlene Westbrook said. “He teased a lot. He liked to joke around with his kids. He played video games with them. He liked to take us on mountain drives.”

She said Westbrook was a proud son of a Vietnam veteran whose family settled in Shiprock, Ariz., on a Navajo reservation. The couple met as teenagers and married after Westbrook graduated basic training.

“He’s always talked about the military, from the day I met him,” Charlene Westbrook said. “He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and make him proud.”

In more than two decades with the Army, Westbrook led his family through more than a half-dozen moves, including to Germany and Korea. He served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and another tour in Iraq in 2007, garnering a pile of certificates and awards he kept in a 3-inch binder. His decorations include the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman Badge and seven Army Commendation Medals.

The family moved to Fountain when Westbrook was transferred to Fort Carson in 1999.With plans to build a permanent home in Colorado, they decided to remain after Westbrook was transferred to a series of new posts, including a difficult three-year duty in Korea from which he was able to visit only twice a year.

Westbrook’s death opened searing questions for the family — over battlefield decisions that left him to object that he and his team were pinned down without proper back-up or close-air support, as well as whether a botched blood transfusion was to blame for his death. Charlene Westbrook wrote a passionate letter about her husband’s military service to Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, and requested that his office investigate those questions to help ensure that other soldiers aren’t placed in undue risk.

Their grief was only sharpened by a weeklong period at Walter Reed during which Westbrook appeared to be heading for a recovery. With his wife and sons at his side, the battered soldier recounted the firefight and asked his wife to pray for the men who were lost. He lavished attention on his sons, congratulating the two older boys for getting into college and encouraging the youngest to sign up for football.

As the days wore on, however, doctors puzzled over his persistent fever and a creeping rash. The immunologic attack that killed Westbrook was diagnosed only after he slipped into a coma, though an earlier diagnosis wouldn’t have helped.

On Monday — Memorial Day — Charlene Westbrook and her sons were in Washington, D.C., to participate in series of events sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program, or TAPS, a nonprofit that offers support for families of the fallen. Interacting with other Gold Star families is an important part of confronting grief, she said, and an important part of the mission that her husband left her with before his death.

“He told me, ‘If I should go, God forbid, there are things I want you to make happen,’” she said. “Do not dwell on my death. Live your lives, be happy and make something of yourselves.”

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth W. Westbrook was killed in action on 10/7/09.

SFC Westbrook's brother, Army Sgt. Marshall A. Westbrook, was also killed in action on 10/01/05 in Iraq.

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