/ Bronze Star with Valor
Covered with shrapnel, 'perfect soldier' pulled his comrade
to safety after hand grenade hit
From the gun turret of his armored Humvee, Spc. Ben West scanned the windows and roofs in central Baghdad, searching for any sign of a gunman or sniper. Suddenly, he saw a flash and a smoke trail and heard someone yell, “RPG.”
Seconds later, a rocket-propelled grenade skipped off the hood of the Humvee and hit the turret, showering West with shrapnel. The force of the blast sent him down into the turret.
The 82nd’s Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team had moved into Baghdad in 2007 as part of a new U.S. strategy in Iraq. It was hoped that an increase of 21,500 troops would bring the chaos in the capital under control. In May, West’s unit was in Sadr City, the infamous Shiia slum.
When they were attacked, the paratroopers were putting up Hesco barriers — head-high mesh baskets filled with dirt — to fortify a joint security station in the neighborhood.
After the blast, all West could see was red dust. For a second, he thought he was dead and in hell. But the screams of the driver, Pfc. Thomas Ponce, brought him back to reality.
“I needed to get out of the vehicle and needed to get him out of the vehicle,” West recalled.
Throwing open the passenger-side door, he ran through a maelstrom of fire to the driver’s side and helped Ponce out, dragging him to safety and the medics who could treat his broken arm and shrapnel wounds.
West returned to the truck, climbing back into the turret to begin firing the .50-caliber machine gun.
“They had just blown up my truck,” West explained. “They were the enemy, and you want to fire back at them.
“The .50 cal is the most casualty-producing weapon. Once you start hearing that and there are rounds coming at you, you are not going to stay and fight.”
West’s unit mates finally pulled him off the truck. The fire was igniting ammunition, and his arms and legs were covered with shrapnel wounds.
“He refused medical attention,” said Leigh Kennedy, his platoon leader at the time. “We got behind cover and started returning fire. He just kept on being a perfect soldier.”
West kept fighting until the medevac arrived. He and Ponce were rushed to the hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone. He spent a few weeks recovering before returning to his unit and finishing his deployment.
Kennedy said he was in awe when he saw West pull Ponce to safety: “This is what you dream about. You hope a soldier will step up and do something like that. It was amazing to watch. He showed so much selfless service, so much courage. It changed the whole course of the incident.”
Kennedy recommended West for a medal.
“He did above and beyond what he was supposed to do,” Kennedy said. “You train your soldiers, but there are some things that soldiers do more than you train to do. That is a privilege.”
Kevin Maurer is a North Carolina-based writer who has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan to cover military units.
/ Bronze Star with Valor
Born: Aug. 9, 1985, in Seattle.
Assigned to 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment. Has deployed three times to Iraq.
WHAT HE DID
Ignoring his own shrapnel wounds, he rescued the injured driver of his Humvee, then climbed back into the burning vehicle to return enemy fire.
WHERE HE IS NOW
Still with the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, now stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.
WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY
“It was something I always wanted to do. It was a civic duty. It was something I should do to give back to the country."
Iraq / Baghdad - Sadar City