Petraeus advised downgrading Swenson’s Medal of Honor bid, probe finds

Capt. William Swenson receives the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on October 15, 2013.


By JONATHAN S. LANDAY | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: November 7, 2013

WASHINGTON — Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus recommended that the Medal of Honor nomination of former Army Capt. William Swenson be downgraded to a lower award, according to a Pentagon investigation that failed to resolve how Swenson’s papers then disappeared instead of being sent up the chain of command.

The review by the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General was completed just weeks after President Barack Obama on Oct. 15 conferred on Swenson the nation’s highest military award for courage — based on a duplicate file — nearly four years after he was recommended for the award for his actions in a 2009 battle in Afghanistan.

Swenson, 34, of Seattle, expressed disappointment that the investigation didn’t hold any individual accountable for the mishandling of his original nomination.

“An institution can’t heal itself unless it can identify what its weaknesses are, and its weaknesses in this case is an individual,” Swenson said in a telephone interview. “The investigation failed to meet the standard of a military investigation in which individuals are identified.

“Behind every single institutional failure, there’s a name.”

The findings were outlined in a letter the inspector general’s office sent to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine officer who’d requested the investigation as part of a larger effort he’s been pursuing to overhaul a military awards process that he charges is subject to politicization and manipulation.

In a letter to Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks, Hunter said he was dissatisfied with the investigation, explaining that he was concerned that “these findings further exacerbate the inconsistencies and discrepancies surrounding Swenson’s nomination.”

“It is extraordinarily disconcerting that the facts surrounding Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination, specific to how it was handled and subsequently lost, still cannot be resolved,” continued Hunter, who requested a briefing on the findings.

Swenson was nominated for the medal for helping to extract U.S. and Afghan troops from a vicious ambush in the Ganjgal Valley by up to 60 Taliban insurgents on Sept. 8, 2009. He then repeatedly re-entered the ambush site under intense fire to recover casualties.

Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, 25, of Columbia, Ky., also was awarded the decoration. A McClatchy investigation subsequently found that key parts of the official accounts of Meyer’s actions were embellished, exaggerated or didn’t occur.

In the letter to Hunter, the inspector general’s office said investigators had interviewed Swenson and 33 other unidentified witnesses and had reviewed military award nominations, email records and computer hard drives.

The inquiry determined that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan had “recommended downgrading the MoH to a Distinguished Service Cross, which was within his discretion to do.” That award is the Army’s second highest decoration for valor.

The letter — a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy — gave no reason for Petraeus’ decision and it didn’t identify the retired Army general by name, referring only to the “former commander, USFOR-A,” the initials of the U.S. force in Afghanistan. According to the findings of a 2011 internal U.S. military investigation obtained earlier this year by McClatchy, Petraeus reviewed and signed Swenson’s Medal of Honor packet on July 28, 2010.

In an interview with McClatchy last year before he resigned as CIA director, Petraeus said he had “no recollection” of ever seeing Swenson’s file, a telephone-book-size three-ring binder comprising sworn statements, maps, photographs and other documents supporting the nomination.

On Thursday, Petraeus declined through a spokesman to discuss the letter from the inspector general’s office. The inspector general’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for an elaboration on its findings.

After Petraeus recommended the award downgrade, Swenson’s file was sent back to the section of the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul that processed decorations, the inspector general’s letter said. The file was never forwarded up the command chain.

The investigation found “no evidence a senior official mishandled, lost, destroyed, purged, disposed of or unnecessarily delayed the recommendation,” the letter said.

At the same time, it gave no reason that Swenson’s packet wasn’t forwarded, didn’t explain how digitized copies disappeared from every military computer system, and didn’t say why a second Medal of Honor nomination that arrived at Petraeus’ headquarters at the same time as Swenson’s packet was processed without a problem.

The awards section of the U.S. headquarters “frequently lost awards, had unreliable processes and employed inadequate tracking systems,” the inspector general’s office said in its letter. “These weaknesses likely contributed to its failure to both promptly forward the recommendation … and accurately track and report its status as a priority action.”

Moreover, the letter didn’t address discrepancies between the inspector general’s findings and the 2011 internal inquiry, which uncovered evidence that a Distinguished Service Cross packet was improperly substituted for Swenson’s Medal of Honor file after the review by Petraeus.

Pentagon regulations limit commanders to three options: recommending that a Medal of Honor nomination be approved, recommending disapproval or recommending that it be downgraded to a lesser award. The nomination files then must be forwarded up the command chain for consideration by their superiors.

Only the president can approve a Medal of Honor nomination.

Capt. William Swenson at a meeting with senior Zone (Brigade) leadership to discuss the security in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, March 2009.