United States Marine Corps Sgt. Jordan Westra’s first-ever professional sports event was a Devils-Rangers playoff game when he was a 15-year-old freshman in high school. “It was awesome to see how intense this rivalry is, especially as a first game,” Westra said of his initial experience. Tuesday night’s battle between the two rivals, nearly 15 years later, had a different meaning for Westra, who was in attendance at Prudential Center.
The Fredon Township, NJ native was honored by the Devils as the team’s Hero of the Game. Long removed from high school, the 29-year old Westra spent four years in active military service and four years in the reserves, and is now going to school for a degree in engineering.
Over his years of service, Westra has encountered more than a fair share of tough times. After enlisting in November 2006, Westra was sent to Iraq following a year of boot camp and infantry training, and remained deployed until May 2008. “We would do a lot of transition training with Iraqi forces, like the Iraqi police and army, and trying to combat some of the Al-Qaeda network in the area.”
The day before Westra was set to leave Iraq, a vehicle carrying 2,000 lbs. of explosives blew up at the entry control point of his camp in Ramadi, killing a member of his unit. “It was rough, especially because it was at the end of our deployment and we were getting ready to leave,” Westra said.
“His name was Cpl. Jonathan Yale,” Westra said, explaining that his combat mate received a Navy Cross, which is awarded for displays of exceptional heroism. According to Westra, there is a movement to get Yale’s award upgraded to a medal of honor.
After returning from Iraq and beginning new training before a planned second deployment to the country, Westra’s unit was reassigned to go to Afghanistan instead. Having been training for relatively peaceful conditions in Iraq, Westra had to restart training for the more combative environment of Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan from May 2009 until November of the same year, Westra said it was a very different environment. “We were engaged in firefights almost every day of our deployment.” Over that time, Westra’s group lost 14 troops.
In July of that year, Westra was in a vehicle hit by an improvised explosive device. “We were going on a recovery mission to recover another vehicle that had gotten blown up and was upside down in a canal,” Westra explained, setting the scene. “We provided security on the second downed vehicle for a week, and we ran out of food and water twice while we were there.” A mission originally planned to take a few hours became a seven-day undertaking.
Over that week, Westra lost an explosive ordinance disposal technician and an engineer, while suffering wounds himself. Westra and his team spent the week clearing 18 IEDs from the area and protecting the downed vehicle until reinforcements could arrive. “We call them secondary’s, and typically when an IED goes off there are others nearby…we ended up finding 18 in 1,000 meters of road.”
“I suffered a Grade 3 concussion with loss of consciousness and I also caught shrapnel to the left side of my rib cage in the blast.” Westra explained that he refused medical evacuation because he was one of only three machine gunners and a senior leader on site. “I didn’t want to leave my guys…I had a job to do and I was going to do it as well as I was able to,” Westra said.
The most meaningful award, for Westra, was the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, with a V for Valor. “I received the award for several engagements we were involved in. I was basically responsible for neutralizing several targets that were trying to overrun our position and I was involved in multiple roles throughout my deployment.” Westra was a patrol leader, machine gun section leader, rifle team leader and served in a number of other capacities. “I wore a lot of hats while I was over there.”
While he’s been out of the military for a little more than a year, Westra said it was a great honor to be recognized, particularly at a game between the two clubs he saw when he attended his first game, many years ago.