Staff Sgt. Justin Gallegos originally earned the Silver Star for his actions during the battle that took his life back in 2009.
On Saturday, his son MacAiden accepted the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor, on his behalf in a ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
The storied Battle of Kamdesh had already garnered two Medals of Honor and nine Silver Stars when the Defense Department agreed to review Gallegos’ Silver Star. Officials later determined that the Silver Star merited an upgrade to the DSC.
His actions, and those of his troop, “will continue to be an example of grit, an example of what a band of brothers at arms can accomplish, and an example that as long as you have hope, then you can achieve the impossible,” Lt. Col. Michael Meyer, commander of 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division said at the ceremony.
It was the end of the deployment for B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
Not only were they leaving behind Combat Outpost Keating, a strategically disastrous base built on a valley floor in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, but leadership had decided it was time to dismantle the COP, which had proven an easy target for insurgent forces peering down from the mountains above.
It was the early morning of Oct. 3, 2009, when fire erupted from the hills above. Under sniper and rocket-propelled grenade fire, according to his citation, Gallegos bolted to a Humvee gun truck, both to protect it and to call for fire on enemy positions.
“From what I have experienced, leaders in combat do two things: they immediately aid their brothers in arms, and they go to the greatest point of friction in a battle,” Meyer said. “This is exactly what Justin did.”
For nearly an hour, he fought back against the insurgents with the Humvee’s mounted crew-served weapon, but once the ammunition ran out, he was pinned down with the vehicle. He used his M4 to suppress enemy fire as he recovered a wounded comrade and then began moving his team to a covered position.
“During this final act, Staff Sergeant Gallegos paid the ultimate sacrifice,” according to his citation. “Staff Sergeant Gallegos’ actions enabled a section of soldiers to regroup and provide necessary security to stave off enemy forces from the west side of the camp.”
Eight soldiers were killed in the battle.
Meyer presided over the Alaska-based ceremony because MacAiden Gallegos now lives there with his mother. Gallegos’ former troop commander, Maj. Stoney Portis, traveled to JBER for the event.
The upgraded award corrected a discrepancy in the narrative of the battle, he said.
“While working on Justin’s award upgrade packet, I came to learn about a singular defining act that makes Justin the most selfless man I have ever met,” Portis said. “Justin Gallegos risked his life to save [Spc.] Stephan Mace. It was that one event, which we were not able to articulate in the narrative of Justin’s Silver Star, that called for an upgrade to the Distinguished Service Cross.”
As his team prepared to abandon the Humvee, Portis said, Mace’s legs were shattered by enemy fire. Rather than run for cover, he added, Gallegos went back for Mace.
“We had always known that Justin is a hero, but within the context of his saving Stephan Mace, we are reminded that Justin is not only a great hero, but that he is also a good man,” Portis said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.