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.