JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (KTUU) - In a ceremony on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the family of a U.S. Army soldier killed in Afghanistan nine years ago has been presented with the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military award for valor.
The Saturday morning ceremony saw hundreds of service members come to honor Staff Sgt. Justin T. Gallegos despite his never having served in Alaska.
Gallegos, then 27, was killed October 3, 2009, in an ambush by 300 fighters on Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province. The 12-hour ambush of COP Keating saw eight service members killed and 27 wounded.
The Army awarded two Medals of Honor, 27 Purple Heart Medals, 37 Army Commendation Medals with “V” device for valor, 18 Bronze Stars with “V” device and nine Silver Stars.
Gallegos is described as showing “extraordinary heroism” by risking his life under heavy fire multiple times.
“During his final act, Staff Sergeant Gallegos paid the ultimate sacrifice,” read the narrative attached to the medal. “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.”
Maj. Stoney Portis, Gallegos’ commanding officer during the battle, said that Gallegos risked his life to try and save Spc. Stephan Mace. Both men died in the firefight.
After the battle, Gallegos was posthumously promoted and awarded the Silver Star for heroism. After a nearly ten-year fight by friends and fellow soldiers, Gallegos had his medal upgraded.
“Medal upgrades aren’t unheard of but in fairness they are rare, they are very rare. It’s said they almost require an act of Congress, well in this case it did require an act of Congress,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who attended the ceremony and presented Gallegos’ son MacAiden,14, with a folded flag which had flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Amanda Marr, Gallegos’ ex-wife who has since remarried, said she was amazed by the welcome and the celebration organized by the military in Alaska. Marr described the feeling that “every soldier is my soldier” even though “this was never his world.”
Marr and son MacAiden Gallegos now live in Alaska and she said she decided to hold the ceremony here as it is home. Members of Gallegos' unit came from across the country at short notice to see the ceremony, said Marr.
Medal of Honor recipients Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha and Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, who fought alongside Gallegos, were also in the audience to honor his memory and support his family.
Gallegos received 13 commendations throughout his six years in the military including the Distinguished Service Cross, three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.
The Distinguished Service Cross presented Saturday is only the 16th awarded to U.S. service members for actions in the war in Afghanistan and only the 31st for the entire Global War on Terror.