Straight-shooter Swenson not done fighting
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
At some point during the World Series telecasts, and probably two or three times during the remainder of the National Football League season, Major League Baseball and the NFL will stage those patented “salute to our military heroes” extravaganzas.
Giant flags will wiggle across the fields. Color guards will parade. The broadcast team will cut away to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where troops in Dr. Denton-like camo uniforms will wave at the cameras. There may or may not be a flyover by fighter jets; those are mostly on hold because of budget cuts. Crowds will cheer. The announcers will praise our heroes. Everybody will feel good.
But Will Swenson doesn’t have a job.
He has been out of the Army and unemployed since 2011. Last week, his hair way past regulation length, he put on his dress-blue captain’s uniform long enough for President Barack Obama to drape the Medal of Honor around his neck. He has a college degree. He has the Medal of Honor. But he doesn’t have a job.
Support our troops.
William D. Swenson, 34, is no longer looking for a job. He has decided he’d like to go back into the Army. This would be rare, a Medal of Honor recipient on active duty. By tradition, every soldier of any rank salutes a Medal of Honor recipient. If Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passes Capt. Swenson in the hall, it’ll be the four-star who snaps off the salute.
Swenson may need Dempsey’s help to get back into the Army. He left on shaky grounds, having had the temerity to rip superior officers for failing to provide his troops with artillery and close-air support when they came under attack.
According to the Military Times, he told investigators looking into the catastrophic Battle of Ganjgal in eastern Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009, that higher-ups had hung his troops out to die. Five of them — three U.S. Marines, a Navy corpsman and an Army sergeant — would. So did 10 members of the Afghan forces that U.S. troops were training.
“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC (tactical operations center), why (the) hell am I even out there in the first place?” Swenson told investigators. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander I want that f-r, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f-r.”
New rules of engagement had been laid down by then-theater commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Brigade and battalion commanders were worried about blowback.
“I always get these crazy messages saying that, ‘Hey, brigade is saying that you can’t see the target,’ ” Swenson told investigators. “Brigade, you’re in Jalalabad. F--- you, you know? I am staring at the target. ... I just get the craziest things on the radio sometimes. Just people second-guessing. If I am willing to put my initials on it, I understand the importance of making sure the rounds hit where they are supposed to hit. I understand the consequences of civilian casualties.”
During the six-hour battle, Swenson coordinated fire and communications, walked out into the kill zone to show a medevac helicopter where to land, loaded his sergeant, Kenneth Westbrook, aboard the chopper. In video captured by cameras mounted on the chopper crew’s helmets, Swenson is seen kissing Westbook goodbye. When the Taliban demanded his surrender, Swenson lobbed a grenade at them.
With Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, he made repeated trips under heavy fire to look for wounded troops and retrieve the bodies of the dead.
Meyer received the Medal of Honor two years ago and wrote a best-selling book about his experience. His heroism that day is undeniable, but for whatever reason — the fog of war, the Marines’ eagerness to have one of their own honored — the account was embellished.
Also, for whatever reason, the Medal of Honor certifications — an inch-thick book — for Will Swenson were “misplaced.” The Army was not happy with him, though Dakota Meyer was his biggest fan.
“Swenson was not the senior commander; he just took over and everyone deferred to him,” Meyer wrote in “Into the Fire.” “To the extent that anyone was in charge on that chaotic battlefield over the course of six or seven hours, it was Captain Will Swenson.”
But the Army didn’t have a place for him. Military scholars have noted that the best and brightest officers often retire early, frustrated at a system that values time in service over merit.
Eventually, thanks to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who did two tours as a Marine officer in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and Jonathan Landay, of McClatchy Newspapers, who was embedded with troops in Ganjgal during the battle, justice was done. If the Army welcomes Swenson back, justice will be complete. America needs leaders like him.
What happened to Swenson was a microcosm of the entire 12-year American experience in Afghanistan. Brave men and women do a thankless job on a dead-end mission, without proper support, and nobody thinks about them unless it’s time to grandstand at halftime shows, or at war memorials or by complaining about death benefits for people who were ignored when they were alive.
Support the troops. Bring them home. Take care of their wounds. Give them jobs. Give them your thanks. And your apologies.
Kevin Horrigan is a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist.