Lawmakers have cleared the way for the posthumous awarding of the nation's second-highest valor medal to a U.S. Army staff sergeant for his bravery during the deadly 2009 battle for Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan, according to the fiscal 2019 defense budget.
The final version of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2019 included a provision that would award the Distinguished Service Cross to Justin Gallegos for his heroism. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill contained similar provisions supporting Gallegos, who fought repulse a determined Taliban assault at the COP, located in Afghanistan's eastern Nuristan province.
The language waives the official deadline, which had expired, for awarding medals for the 2009 battle. Policy requires that medals be awarded within five years of the date of action, although Congress has approved numerous exceptions.
The brutal battle resulted in the award of two Medals of Honor and claimed the lives of eight U.S. soldiers, including Gallegos.
Gallegos posthumously received the Silver Star for his heroism; this provision would upgrade that award. The Distinguished Service Cross is ranked just below the Medal of Honor in prestige.
About 300 Taliban attacked the small outpost before dawn Oct. 3. Gallegos was there with roughly 50 soldiers from B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. Approximately 30 Afghan troops were with the 3-61st.
When the attack began, "Staff Sgt. Justin T. Gallegos, Sgt. Bradley Larson, and Spc. Stephan L. Mace raced to fortified High-Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles, or Humvees, at the southern side that served as a Battalion Position," according to an official Army account of the battle.
"Larson and Gallegos immediately engaged the enemy in the hills with the Humvee's .50 caliber machine gun and ground-mounted, belt-fed M240 machine gun, while Mace engaged the east with his M4 carbine."
Gallegos and his fellow soldiers defended the position while Spc. Ty Michael Carter repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to keep Gallegos' 240 and Larson's .50 cal. resupplied with ammunition.
Carter would later receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the battle.
"The enemy attack was unrelenting; the cacophony of gunfire deafening, and the crew at the southern battle position quickly expended the additional M240 rounds," according to the account of the battle.
The enemy began pounding the Humvee position with rocket-propelled grenades.
"One rocket detonated on the turret and destroyed the .50 caliber, spraying the interior with shrapnel," according to the account. "Larson, Martin and Carter were wounded."
Dozens of Taliban were firing on the position from high ground. Gallegos decided to take two other soldiers to link up with the remaining members of B Troop, while Carter and Larson provided covering fire.
As he led his team through enemy fire, "Gallegos was hit by machine gun fire ... killing him instantly. Martin was hit in the leg and scrambled beneath a nearby laundry trailer. RPG shrapnel wounded Mace, who managed to crawl to low ground 30 meters from the Humvee," the account states.
A handful of 3-61st soldiers in a second Humvee soon reinforced the besieged position, and the fighting raged on. It took several hours for reinforcements to arrive from Observation Post Fritsche. In addition to Gallegos and the seven other deaths, more than 20 troops were wounded in the attack on Keating.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.