NCO graduates Air Assault School despite amputation

By SGT. JOE PADULA
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division

For almost 12 miles, Sgt. 1st Class Greg Robinson has been carrying about 35-pounds of gear. He sees a clock in the near distance with red digital numerals closing in on the three-hour mark, the time limit for the near half-marathon march. He wants to sprint to the finish line, but his face winces with every right step taken. His breaths are heavy and pain can be heard with each inhale.

His left leg is in full stride, but his right, having been amputated more than six years ago, now pushes forward on a damaged prosthetic; a piston broke a few miles back eliminating fluid motion. He picks up a faster, but still limping pace. Sweat drips into his eyes and his fists are clenched tight as he approaches the finish line with two minutes to spare.

Sgt. 1st Class Greg Robinson, a combat engineer with A Company, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), rappels from a 40-foot tower April 26, 2013, at the Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Ky. Robinson lost his lower right leg when his unit was ambushed Afghanistan in 2006. (Photo by Sgt. Joe Padula)
Sgt. 1st Class Greg Robinson, a combat engineer with A Company, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), rappels from a 40-foot tower April 26, 2013, at the Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Ky. Robinson lost his lower right leg when his unit was ambushed Afghanistan in 2006. (Photo by Sgt. Joe Padula)

He stops before crossing, pulls out his canteen, pours water on his helmet and face. He takes a giant step with his left foot and says two words, “Air Assault.” He then takes another step with his prosthetic, exhales and accomplishes his mission: He has just completed the Army’s Air Assault School on one leg.

Robinson, a 34-year old combat engineer assigned to A Company, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), pinned on his Air Assault badge during a graduation ceremony April 29 at the Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Ky.

According to the school’s records, Robinson is the first Soldier with an amputated limb and prosthetic to complete the Air Assault School.

“It’s a really good feeling and I just hope this can inspire other amputees and other people with disabilities that they can accomplish things,” said Robinson, who lost his lower right leg while deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, during a firefight Oct. 3, 2006. “My biggest thing today is to let that someone who is laying there wounded in that hospital bed know not to get down on yourself. You can still continue despite missing a limb. A disability is only a disability if you let it hold you down.”

The Army’s Air Assault School is a ten-day course that qualifies Soldiers to conduct air-assault helicopter operations, sling-load missions, fast roping and rappelling. It ends with a fast-paced, heavy load, 12-mile ruck-march and is designed to push a service member’s limits mentally and physically. It has been called the hardest 10 days in the Army.

“That was the toughest part. But it’s over with now,” said Robinson moments after completing the 12-miler. “I had problems with my leg during the Tough One [event], but fixed it and continued.”  One of Robinson’s air valves was knocked off during the obstacle portion of the course.

During the 10-day event, the school’s staff ensured that the professional standard was maintained in regards to their grading of Robinson. There was no bias for or against the amputee Soldier.

Robinson, who wears a prosthetic right leg, nears the end of a 12-mile road march April 29, 2013. Robinson earned his Air Assault wings upon completion of the march and is the first amputee to do so. (Photo by Sgt. Joe Padula)
Robinson, who wears a prosthetic right leg, nears the end of a 12-mile road march April 29, 2013. Robinson earned his Air Assault wings upon completion of the march and is the first amputee to do so. (Photo by Sgt. Joe Padula)

“The instructors were a bit nervous when he first started,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Connolly, a senior instructor at the Air Assault School. “But they did their job just as if he were any other student and, on that note, I am very proud of them. They didn’t see him as a disabled Soldier and treated him just like anyone else coming to school to earn the Air Assault wings. We are very proud of him and I think others need to look at him as a mentor and an example of what you can accomplish when you set your mind on something.”

Prior to attending the physically demanding school, Robinson needed a waiver from the unit’s medical staff. Robinson’s accomplishments continue to surprise and inspire those medics.

“Some of these guys never even learn to walk on a prosthesis, let alone go through the Air Assault course,” said Capt. Gregory Gibson, a nurse with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team who has worked with amputee Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before coming to the brigade. “He’s had this thing happen to him that most would see as a career ender. He’s a shining example that life can carry on.”

Robinson’s momentum continues as he now looks to attend the school’s Master Rappel Course, which qualifies Air Assault School graduates in the skills and techniques necessary to rappel from moving aircraft. His wounded friends are still in his thoughts.

“When I was at Walter Reed, I looked around and felt sad for myself,” Robinson said. “But the more I looked, the more I realized there were so many who had it harder, who had it worse than me — a triple amputee, a quad-amputee — and watching them work and push so hard inspired me.”

Robinson slowly repeated an earlier phrase.

“A disability is only a disability if you let it hold you down.”

Soldiers married to Soldiers must now opt into Family SGLI

From the American Forces Press Service:

Sgt. 1st Class Jamie L. Outland-Brown and Staff Sgt. Darrell P. Brown accept an American flag as a symbol of their commitment to the Army during a re-enlistment ceremony at Camp Blessing, Afghanistan, on their anniversary, May 5, 2007.
Sgt. 1st Class Jamie L. Outland-Brown and Staff Sgt. Darrell P. Brown accept an American flag as a symbol of their commitment to the Army during a re-enlistment ceremony at Camp Blessing, Afghanistan, on their anniversary, May 5, 2007.

Service members married to other service members are no longer automatically enrolled in the Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance program, Pentagon officials said. They must now opt into the coverage.

The change was effective Jan. 2, and to date affects about 4,500 service members, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Kristen Martin, who heads the Defense Department’s SGLI policy office. She spoke during an interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel.

Martin emphasized that no changes have been made to the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, or SGLI, program, in which all service members are enrolled. SGLI provides up to a $400,000 payment to a service member’s beneficiary, while the Family SGLI term insurance benefit provides a payment to a service member of up to $100,000 upon the death of a spouse or $10,000 for dependent children.

Read more…

Army seeks round of base closure, realignment for 2015

From Army News Service:

The Army says a round of base realignment and closure for fiscal year 2015 is necessary to save tax dollars, consolidate resources and adapt to force reductions.

With a smaller total force over the next years — from a high of 570,000 in 2010 to 490,000 in 2017 — the Army’s need for facilities will also decrease, said Katherine Hammack, the Army’s assistant secretary for Installations, Energy and Environment.

“The resulting force structure reduction will create excess capacity at several installations,” she testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, subcommittee on readiness and management support, April 24, 2013.

“With a reduced end-strength and force structure in the United States, now is the time to assess and right-size the supporting infrastructure,” she said.

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Army combating sexual assault using ‘team approach’

From Army News Service:

In the third year of its campaign against sexual assault and harassment, the Army is focusing on cultural change, more effective training, and prosecutorial efforts that use a “team approach.”

Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, deputy chief of staff, Army G-1, fielded questions on sexual assault as well as a number of other concerns from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, subcommittee on military personnel, which held an oversight hearing on personnel programs, April 24.

It is admittedly difficult to gauge cultural shifts in willingness to report sexual abuse and harassment, Bromberg said, but the Army has tried to measure the changing climate with its own internal surveys.

He cited a survey at the beginning of the campaign that showed a 28 percent “propensity to report” sexual harassment or assault by female victims. A later report showed a 42 percent propensity — a pretty significant increase.

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Fallen NCO’s family accepts posthumous Silver Star

By NICK DUKE
Fort Benning Bayonet

The family of Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook was presented with his Silver Star for gallantry, and his second Combat Infantryman Badge on April 19 during an emotional ceremony at Derby Auditorium at Fort Benning, Ga.

Westbrook died Oct. 7, 2009, as a result of wounds suffered Sept. 8, 2009, when insurgents attacked his unit in the Ganjgal Valley of Afghanistan.

Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster (left), commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, Ga., presents Charlene Westbrook, the wife of Sgt. 1st. Class Kenneth Westbrook, and her three sons — Zachary, Joshua and Joseph — with her husband's Silver Star during a ceremony April 19, 2013. (Photo by Ashley Cross)
Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster (left), commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, Ga., presents Charlene Westbrook, the wife of Sgt. 1st. Class Kenneth Westbrook, and her three sons — Zachary, Joshua and Joseph — with her husband’s Silver Star during a ceremony April 19, 2013. (Photo by Ashley Cross)

Receiving the award 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 family members received word that the Silver Star would be posthumously awarded, they selected Fort Benning as the site of the ceremony, intending to reflect Westbrook’s love of and dedication to the Army as a whole, but also to 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. 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 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,” said Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, during his remarks at the Silver Star ceremony. “[It’s] fitting because what those young men and Sgt. 1st Class Westbrook have in common is that they volunteered to answer our nation’s call to duty in a time of war.”

“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 Sgt. 1st 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 guns, 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.

Sgt. 1st. Class Kenneth Westbrook
Sgt. 1st. Class Kenneth Westbrook

He was wounded during the battle, but did not succumb to his injuries for 30 days.

Jonathan Landay, a reporter for McClatchy newspapers 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, New Mexico Army National Guard, who died Oct. 1, 2005, while serving near Baghdad, Iraq.

Charlene Westbrook said the award helped the family 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 Sgt. 1st 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.”