Capt. William Swenson at a meeting with senior Zone (Brigade) leadership to discuss the security in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, March 2009.
U.S. Army Photo
In the news:
Long wait ends this week as Swenson receives Medal of Honor
WASHINGTON - It's sadly fitting that William Swenson's Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House on Tuesday has been overshadowed by the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis.
That's because Swenson's heroism at the Battle of Ganjgal in September 2009 has already been overshadowed by the mistakes of his superiors and bureaucratic delays. The former soldier waited more than four years for his recognition, much to the chagrin of his friends and military advocates.
Swenson, who left the Army in 2011, is the sixth living Medal of Honor recipient for action in Afghanistan, and the second for that fight in the Ganjgal Valley. Former Marine Dakota Meyer was awarded the medal two years ago for his part of that fight, dodging gunfire in another part of the steep terrain before meeting up with Swenson for the final push against the enemy.
Swenson declined media interviews in the lead-up to the White House ceremony and has been mostly silent since the battle. In an Army release, he called the medal an honor for "those I served with" and "my family and my teammates."
Lawmakers and his unitmates have done the talking for him, arguing that his bravery and valor that day deserve the highest military honors. When Meyer received his award, he publicly lobbied for Swenson to be similarly recognized, calling the oversight "ridiculous."
"If it wasn't for him," Meyer told the Military Times in 2011, "I wouldn't be alive today."
U.S. forces were in the Ganjgal Valley in fall 2009 to assist the buildup of relations between the Afghan government and remote villages there. Swenson was serving as an embedded trainer and mentor to Afghan border police.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, more than 100 Afghan security personnel and U.S. troops fanned out across the valley, to support a friendly engagement mission with village elders. Army accounts of the battle said the coalition troops were ambushed as they walked down an exposed wash-out area, with RPG and small arms fire coming from reinforced points all around.
From his support position, then-Capt. Swenson observed enemy fighters attempting to flank his men and began firing. He directed Afghan allies to help other soldiers pinned down by the attack, but the friendly forces were separated by the overwhelming enemy assault.
The number of coalition wounded quickly mounted. Maj. Kevin Williams, who was leading the mission's command element, was shot in the arm. An explosion ruptured the eardrums of another soldier. Swenson called for air support and coordinated medical evacuations.
The most serious injury was to Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who was shot through the neck after being isolated from the rest of the U.S. forces. Swenson dashed across the uncovered hillside to reach him, barely avoiding gunfire that killed two nearby Afghan allies.
By now, enemy attackers were within 50 yards of Swenson and his men. A trio of Taliban attackers signaled to the Americans to surrender. Army officials said Swenson momentarily put down his radio to respond to the demand "by throwing a hand grenade."
After more than two hours, helicopters arrived to provide air support. The relief gave the ground forces a chance to provide first aid and evacuate their wounded.
In video released by the Army last month, Swenson can be seen practically carrying Westbrook to a helicopter for medical assistance and kissing him on the forehead while he offers words of support.
But Swenson's fight wasn't over. He and Marine 1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo drove an unarmored truck into the kill zone twice, weaving through enemy attacks to evacuate more wounded. On the other side of the village, Meyer and Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez were doing the same.
Despite the efforts, and almost three hours into the fight, three Marines and a Navy corpsman were still missing. Swenson, Meyer and the others met to plan a mission into the center of the village to find them.
That led to three more hours of rescue and recovery work, often without any hope of backup support for Swenson and his makeshift crew.
By noon, they had found the missing men, all dead. Still under attack, the crew recovered the bodies and pulled away from the village.
Army officials said Swenson's actions directly saved more than a dozen Afghan troops' lives, and his steady leadership kept the ambush from producing even more U.S. casualties.
"In seven hours of continuous fighting, Swenson braved intense enemy fire, and willfully put his life in danger ... multiple times in service of his fallen and wounded comrades," the official service report said.
Westbrook died a few weeks after the attack, due to complications from his injuries. His family told Army officials they were able to spend a few more precious days with him because of Swenson's heroism.
Five months after the battle, three Army officers were reprimanded for their refusal to provide air support to the besieged force and "negligent leadership." Included in the official investigation were scathing comments from Swenson, who blasted them for ignoring ground forces' reports and making misguided life-or-death decisions from afar.
That led to speculation that Swenson's Medal of Honor packet had been shelved in retaliation by Army officials, especially after Meyer's award moved quickly through military channels.
Officially, Army and White House officials said the paperwork was misplaced, and that Swenson's medal will correct that mistake.
They've also promised that despite the ongoing budget battles and partisan fighting in Washington, the government shutdown won't add another delay to his overdue honor.
Medal of Honor Citation:
Rank and organization: Capt. William D. Swenson, Task Force Phoenix, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division
Place and date: Afghanistan, Kunar Province, September 8, 2009
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty
Captain William D. Swenson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as embedded advisor to the Afghan National Border Police, Task Force Phoenix, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan in support of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on September 8, 2009. On that morning, more than 60 well-armed, well-positioned enemy fighters ambushed Captain Swenson's combat team as it moved on foot into the village of Ganjgal for a meeting with village elders. As the enemy unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and machine gun fire, Captain Swenson immediately returned fire and coordinated and directed the response of his Afghan Border Police, while simultaneously calling in suppressive artillery fire and aviation support. After the enemy effectively flanked Coalition Forces, Captain Swenson repeatedly called for smoke to cover the withdrawal of the forward elements. Surrounded on three sides by enemy forces inflicting effective and accurate fire, Captain Swenson coordinated air assets, indirect fire support and medical evacuation helicopter support to allow for the evacuation of the wounded. Captain Swenson ignored enemy radio transmissions demanding surrender and maneuvered uncovered to render medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier. Captain Swenson stopped administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at approaching enemy forces, before assisting with moving the soldier for air evacuation. With complete disregard for his own safety, Captain Swenson unhesitatingly led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions, to recover the wounded and search for four missing comrades. After using aviation support to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades, it became clear that ground recovery of the fallen was required due to heavy enemy fire on helicopter landing zones. Captain Swenson's team returned to the kill zone another time in a Humvee. Captain Swenson voluntarily exited the vehicle, exposing himself to enemy fire, to locate and recover three fallen Marines and one fallen Navy corpsman. His exceptional leadership and stout resistance against the enemy during six hours of continuous fighting rallied his teammates and effectively disrupted the enemy's assault. Captain William D. Swenson's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Task Force Phoenix, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division and the United States Army.