Capt. William D. Swenson, Medal of Honor, Afghanistan
Capt. William D. Swenson, Medal of Honor, Afghanistan

BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D.  William D. Swenson is a former captain in the United States Army, receiving  the Medal of Honor on 15 October 2013. He is the first United States Army officer to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, as well as the sixth living recipient in the War on Terror.

Swenson graduated from Seattle University with a Bachelor of Science degree in political science. He received his commission after completing Officer Candidate School as a 2nd Lieutenant infantry officer in the  United States Army in September 2002. His military education includes Ranger School and Airborne School, and has deployed numerous times in the War on Terror (three times to Iraq and two times to Afghanistan). He has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal (with two oak leaf clusters), the Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.  At the time of the Battle of Ganjgal, Swenson was a Captain in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, detailed as an Embedded Trainer for the Afghan Border Police.

Toward the end of the battle, Swenson and Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo made two trips into the kill zone to rescue Afghan troops. Then they joined Meyer and Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who had been making separate rescue missions, to recover the bodies of three Marines, a Navy corpsman and their Afghan interpreter, who were found in a deep trench. (Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez were awarded the Navy Cross.)

Swenson, 34, is credited with risking his life to help save his fellow troops and recover bodies, feats that President Obama recounted when he presented Swenson with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.

For reasons which remain unclear, the paperwork was lost, causing a significant delay in the nomination process. Some believe that Swenson was being punished for loudly criticizing his senior officers (for not sending fire support) in an after-action investigation into the battle. His case was reopened in 2011 at the urging of Marine Corps General John R. Allen. Dakota Meyer strongly advocated for Swenson’s Medal of Honor in his book, Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War, writing that if it weren’t for Swenson, he (Meyer) would not be alive today.

After returning from the battlefield, Swenson engaged in a lengthy and bitter dispute with the military over the narrative of one of the Afghan war’s most notorious firefights.The questions he raised resulted in reprimands for two other officers and what he and others say was an effort by the Army to discredit him.

From a personal perspective having served in the U.S Army and the Public Service I can relate to what happened to Swenson.  Those who don’t go along to get along are often ostracized and face difficulties moving through the system.

Four years after he survived a brutal firefight in a remote Afghanistan valley that claimed the lives of five Americans, retired U.S. Army Capt. William Swenson was hailed as a hero at the White House on Tuesday 15 October, 2013.

Swenson — the first Army officer since the Vietnam War to be awarded the medal — has been unemployed since leaving the service in 2011. He is single and lives in Seattle, growing a thick beard and long hair, in contrast to the clean-cut look of his military days, and escaping often to the mountains to find solitude in “my forced early retirement.”

But for Swenson, the award stands for more than his personal bravery during the seven-hour battle in the Ganjgal valley, near the Pakistan border, on Sept. 8, 2009. It is also a measure of vindication.

United in war, the two men have taken far different paths since. Meyer has found celebrity and success, with a book and a personal assistant, boosted by a story that Swenson considers an inflated and misleading account of that harrowing day.

Ganjgal remains one of the costliest battles of the 12-year Afghan conflict. In addition to the five U.S. deaths, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter were killed, while more than two dozen coalition troops were injured.

Medal of Honor Official 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.

 

//S//    Barack Obama  President

 

The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.

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