For Silt’s Westhoffs, 9/11 was a family affair
Fifteen years ago today, Christopher Westhoff, a Marine platoon commander who grew up in Silt, was onboard the USS Boxer headed back to California from Hawaii.
It was a Tiger cruise, during which relatives can come along, so his father, Mike, and a son were on the ship as well.
At Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in California, Chris’ younger brother Greg was getting married that day, and mother Janet attended.
On the other side of the country, in upstate New York, David, the second oldest of Mike and Janet Westhoff’s six sons, was a Marine recruiter “sitting at the kitchen tables of America” talking to families about military life.
Jeff, the youngest son, also was in the Marines, and Adam was in the Air Force.
After terrorists attacked the World Trade Center that day, Sept. 11, 2001, it became something of a mantra in the United States that “everything changed.”
Even with five Westhoff brothers, all Rifle High School graduates, already in the military, the nature of their service indeed changed as the American military began a protracted, shifting war against terror.
All five would have forward deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chris would be in an armored vehicle hit by a roadside bomb. Greg would be in a helicopter with celebrity former Marine Oliver North that took fire northeast of Baghdad.
David, seeing Greg interviewed by North on TV, “got a sickening feeling” that he was visiting homes — which he considered important work — but his brothers were all either deployed or scheduled for deployment. He worked to switch assignments and served in Afghanistan in 2010-11.
Chris would rendezvous with Greg and Jeff in Iraq. With an eight-year spread between Christopher, the oldest, and Jeff, the youngest, the brothers hadn’t seen a lot of each other since Christopher enlisted in 1990.
Mom at home in Silt worried, of course. Mike said in an interview in 1999, when Adam was stationed on the border of then-war-torn Kosovo, that he had trouble focusing at work sometimes.
But through all of the deployments — including Christopher’s time in Fallujah, scene of some of the fiercest battles of the Iraq war, none of the brothers was seriously injured.
For example, when Christopher’s vehicle was hit with the explosive, he didn’t qualify for a Purple Heart “because you have to be hurt enough to go to the hospital” to get one.
David explained the brothers’ luck:
“My grandmother told me early in life that God looks out for fools and Westhoffs, so that means you’re doubly protected.”
The Marines say they are looking for a few good men, and they found four in the Westhoff home in Silt Mesa, and the Air Force found one, too.
Only Peter, the middle son, did not enlist.
It wasn’t a lock that any of the Westhoff boys would join the service, though. They all wrestled at Rifle High — imagine the rough-housing at home — and Chris, Peter and Jeff all qualified for the state tournament, though an injury kept Chris from competing.
Mike, their father, “was not a fan of the military,” Chris said, after Mike’s brother was poorly treated upon returning from Vietnam.
But Janet’s father had been in the military and she grew up an Army brat, and Chris, who described himself as “kind of a bad kid” during high school, decided to enlist. He actually had to buckle down in night and summer school to graduate so the Marines would take him, and for years, his 1.4 grade-point average held him back.
Dad began to come around not long after Chris entered the Marines, though.
“When he came out and saw me, I was a different person,” Chris recalled.
David said, “we always had kind of a one-upsmanship,” the best explanation he had for why four other brothers signed up.
By 2000, Adam’s deployment to Macedonia was the closest to war any of them had been. His job in the Air Force was to direct air support from within the military theater.
Jeff was in Marine security and had served in Bahrain.
On the Lock, sailing toward Long Beach, Chris saw reports about the first of the Twin Towers being struck by an airplane on satellite TV.
“I thought some private pilot screwed up,” he recalled. Then, when the second plane hit, it was clear the nation was under attack.
As a platoon commander, he met with his men, who asked, “Hey, sir, we gonna go get them?”
“I said, ‘Who do we go and get?’” underscoring the murky nature of terrorism.
In New York, a double amputee Vietnam veteran visited David Westhoff and offered to do desk duty “to free up somebody to protect our nation.”
“To see people stand up and say my grandparents defended our nation and now it’s my turn speaks to the quality of Americans,” David said.
At the same time, a veteran came to ask that the Marines bring his recently enlisted son home. David was stationed near Cornell University, and endured “some lashing out at the military,” but when he switched to officer selection in late 2001, “people from Wall Street came to be citizen-soldiers.”
Greg’s interview with Ollie North was in April 2003, prompting David’s own decision to volunteer for action. It took several years, but David was in a helicopter unit in Afghanistan in September 2011, 10 years after the attack.
In 2012, he encountered Greg, a helicopter door gunner, at a base in Afghanistan — their mother noting that it was the first time since high school the two sat down for a meal together.
By then, Chris had seen significant action in Fallujah in 2006-07, “trying to get the Iraqis to step up.”
“We lived there,” he said. “It was a matter of showing them that they could do it.”
He got to know the town, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, very well.
“We could always tell when Al-Qaeda was in a neighborhood because people stopped smoking” to avoid violating the terror group’s wrath for violating its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
“We wanted to find them,” he said. “We wanted to locate and destroy the enemy. … Some people just need killing.”
The Westhoff brothers have been fortunate. Only Adam remains on active duty. Chris teaches ROTC at Virginia Tech University. David and Greg left the military this year. Jeff is an electrician in Denver.
They recognize that many of their brothers and sisters in arms struggle in the military and with life afterward.
“Those people who have given so much, we owe it to them to take care of them,” David said, thinking of some of the people he recruited. “They’re the people who sat around their kitchen table when they were 16 or 17 and said, ‘I want to defend my country.’”
The Veterans Affairs medical system needs scrutiny, he said, which requires a dedicated community effort.
He said he served with many men who have committed suicide — an epidemic among veterans, who kill themselves at more than 20 times the rate of the civilian population.
He said depression causes suicide and we all have a responsibility to “grab those people.”
“We can almost always tell that they are digging a hole,” he said, and it’s critically important that people — veterans and others — know it’s OK to talk about depression.
Chris said the military needs to “develop a program to prescreen, to look at some young patriot in the face and say, ‘I can’t let you do this to yourself.’
“We need another way for them to serve.”
For their part, Chris and David, the eldest Westhoff brothers, consider it an honor that changed their lives. From a difficult teenager to a warrior, Chris says, “It was totally worth it.”
He shook Nelson Mandela’s hand, met Hillary Clinton and had a conversation about American military presence in Australia with President Barack Obama.
“I don’t want to be a protected class” as a veteran, he said, “but I love it about the country that people thank us for our service.”
Remembering his uncle’s post-Vietnam experience, he said, “Iraq was unpopular, but it’s not held against me. That’s how much we’ve grown up since the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
David recalled support from home, such as hand-knitted caps sent to his unit in Afghanistan, or getting dried peaches from Palisade.
“There’s nothing like waking up in a foreign country full of bad guys and there’s a care package from home,” he said.
“I get tingles on the back of my neck when I hear the national anthem, because we do have a great country.”
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