WASHINGTON - Like other U.S. trainers with the Afghan force that day, former Army Capt. William Swenson had expected light resistance. Instead, the contingent walked into a furious six-hour gunfight with Taliban ambushers in which Swenson repeatedly charged through intense fire to retrieve wounded and dead.
The 2009 battle of Ganjgal is perhaps the most remarkable of the Afghan war for its extraordinary heroism and deadly incompetence. It produced dozens of casualties, career-killing reprimands and a slew of commendations for valor. They included two Medal of Honor nominations, one for Swenson.
Yet months after the first living Army officer in some 40 years was put in for the nation's highest military award for gallantry, his nomination vanished into a bureaucratic black hole. The U.S. military in Afghanistan said an investigation had found that it was "lost" in the approval process, something that several experts dismissed as improbable, saying that hasn't happened since the awards system was computerized in the mid-1970s.
In fact, the investigation uncovered evidence that suggests a far more troubling explanation. It showed that as former Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer's Medal of Honor nomination from the same battle sailed toward approval despite questions about the accuracy of the account of his deeds, there may have been an effort to kill Swenson's nomination.
Swenson's original nomination was downgraded to a lesser award, in violation of Army and Defense Department regulations, evidence uncovered by the investigation showed.
Moreover, Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination "packet," a digitized file that contains dozens of documents attesting to his "heroism ... above and beyond the call of duty," disappeared from the computer system dedicated to processing awards, a circumstance for which the military said it has "no explanation."
The unpublished findings, which McClatchy Newspapers has reviewed, threaten to taint a military awards process that's designed to leave no margin of doubt or possibility of error about the heroism and sacrifices of U.S. service personnel. They also could bolster charges by some officers, lawmakers, veterans' groups and experts that the process is vulnerable to improper interference and manipulation, embarrassing the military services and the Obama administration.
"The whole awards system is just totally jacked up," said Doug Sterner, a military historian who's made a career of verifying the authenticity of commendations.
The Pentagon and the military services deny that the system is flawed, and the U.S. command in Afghanistan denied that there was any attempt to downgrade Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination.
Yet despite the possibility of malfeasance or worse, no further effort was made to determine what happened. The "discrepancies" posed by the evidence of a downgrade to a Distinguished Service Cross "could not be resolved," the investigators said.
Swenson's nomination was resubmitted last year. President Barack Obama must approve it before Sept. 8, the third anniversary of the battle, or it expires and can only be revived by an act of Congress.
It couldn't be determined whether there was an effort to kill Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination, but there are several possible motives for doing so.
Interviewed by military investigators five days after the battle, Swenson implicitly criticized top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan by blasting their rules of engagement. Angered that his repeated calls for artillery and air support were denied during the ambush, he charged that in trying to prevent civilian casualties for political reasons, the rules were costing U.S. soldiers' lives.
"We are not looking at the ground fighter and why he is using these air assets," Swenson said, according to a transcript obtained by McClatchy. "We just reduced an asset that's politically unpopular. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there saying, 'I would really like that asset.' There are probably a lot of people who got killed as a result of not having that asset.
"I'm not a politician. I'm just the guy on the ground asking for that ammunition to be dropped because it's going to save lives," he continued.
Further, several key parts of the Army's draft account of Swenson's deeds - a central pillar of a nomination file - conflict with the Marines' account of Meyer's acts.
The Army's version, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, said it was Swenson - not Meyer - who led the recovery of U.S. and Afghan casualties from the Ganjgal Valley.
"The need for a ground recovery of all remaining casualties had now become clear," the Army's draft narrative said. "Facing this extreme and dire circumstance, and going above and beyond the call of duty, CPT Swenson gathered available combat power to lead a return up the wash."
The Army's draft narrative also corroborated the reporting of a McClatchy correspondent who survived the ambush that the belated arrival of U.S. helicopters had allowed trapped American personnel to escape, and that they weren't saved by Meyer.
"A team of scout helicopters ... arrived in the valley. CPT Swenson ... began to talk the aircrafts' fires onto the various enemy targets," the draft narrative said. "The enemy sporadically engaged coalition forces while they were overhead. This provided (Swenson and those with him) the slim opportunity they needed" to pull back.
The problem of conflicting narratives would have been eliminated with the quiet death of Swenson's nomination, which was put in some two months before Meyer was nominated.
Clearing Meyer's award would have pacified Marine leaders who blamed Marine casualties on the Army's failure to provide timely air and ground support. Moreover, they were angered by the first investigation of the battle - conducted solely by the Army - which they considered unbalanced. And then the Army nominated one of its own for the Medal of Honor.
After receiving an official inquiry about its status in July 2011, Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, resubmitted Swenson's nomination when a duplicate packet was found outside the computerized awards system. Allen also ordered the investigation into what happened to the original.
Swenson's replacement nomination, submitted about the same time that Obama signed off on Meyer's decoration, is believed to have been approved by the Army's leadership and is awaiting a review by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta before being passed to Obama for final action. George Little, a spokesman for Panetta, declined to discuss the case.
Swenson, 33, of Seattle, resigned from the Army in February 2011. He declined to be interviewed for this report.
The evidence that his original Medal of Honor nomination was downgraded against regulations comes on top of a McClatchy investigation that found that the Marine Corps inflated its account of Meyer's deeds, attributing actions to him that were embellished or unsubstantiated or that couldn't have happened.
Obama's recitation of Meyer's acts - delivered at a White House awards ceremony on Sept. 15, 2011 - repeated the exaggerated and erroneous details, said the McClatchy investigation, which was published in December by the journalist who survived the ambush while on assignment with Meyer's unit.
McClatchy's investigation also noted that at least seven participants in the battle attested to Meyer's heroism in retrieving under fire - along with Swenson and other U.S. and Afghan personnel - the bodies of three Marines and a Navy corpsman.
The White House, the Pentagon and the Marine Corps defended the official accounts of Meyer's actions, saying they were the products of an exhaustive review process and that there was no reason to look into the matter.
Swenson, who served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, was an adviser to 30 Afghan Border Police officers who joined some 60 Afghan troops and their Marine trainers on Sept. 8, 2009, for what was expected to be a low-risk mission to Ganjgal, a fortresslike village at the end of a U-shaped valley in eastern Kunar province. Word of the operation leaked, however, and the contingent walked into a trap set by an estimated 50 to 60 insurgents.
Swenson was nominated for the Medal of Honor for helping to extricate the force and then repeatedly driving back into the kill zone to retrieve casualties under a hail of insurgent bullets and shells
In addition to the three Marines and the Navy corpsman, the battle claimed the lives of an Army sergeant, nine Afghan troops and an Afghan translator. Two dozen Afghans and four Americans, including Swenson and Meyer, were wounded.
Besides the Medal of Honor nominations, the clash produced two Navy Crosses - the second highest U.S. military decoration for gallantry - eight Bronze Stars and nine Purple Hearts. After the two investigations, two Army officers were reprimanded for dereliction of duty for spurning calls by Swenson and others for air, artillery and ground support.
In his interview with investigators, Swenson expressed bitterness that his request for air and artillery support had been denied. He charged that the U.S. rules of engagement induced American commanders to be overly cautious and second-guess troops in the field.
"I understand the necessity of saving as many lives as I can," he said, according to the transcript. "Unfortunately, this is combat. I can't be perfect, but I can do what I feel what's right at the time. When I am being second-guessed by higher or somebody that's sitting in an air-conditioned TOC (tactical operations center), well, hell, why am I even out there? Let's just ... sit back and play Nintendo."
A Medal of Honor "packet" typically comprises dozens of digitized documents entered into the computer system that each service maintains to process awards. They include a draft narrative of the nominee's deeds and a short draft citation supported by sworn witness statements, maps, diagrams and other materials. A nominating officer also fills out a computerized nomination form and signs and dates it digitally with the swipe of a special card. The nomination then moves up the chain of command through a review process that ends with a final recommendation to the president by the secretary of defense.
Swenson's draft citation - a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy - praised him for "extraordinary heroism, exceptional leadership amidst chaos and death, and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty."
Evidence gathered by the investigation into what happened to his original Medal of Honor nomination was detailed in documents appended to an Aug. 11, 2011, letter signed by Army Col. James H. Chevallier III, who served as a senior staff officer with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
McClatchy was shown the letter and the attachments, and was allowed to take notes. Army Col. Thomas Collins, a Kabul-based spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S.-led coalition of foreign troops in Afghanistan, confirmed the documents' authenticity. Chevallier's letter said the investigation had determined that Swenson's nomination wasn't "staffed to completion" and was "lost" in part because of a high staff turnover rate.
"The investigation didn't find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing or evidence that anyone downgraded the nomination, but there were failures at multiple levels in tracking and processing the award," Collins said in an email. "That can't excuse what happened, and we have made adjustments to prevent it from happening again."
But Collins' statement and Chevallier's conclusions don't account for the evidence of a downgrade that's outlined in the documents attached to the letter. The letter characterized the attachments as "a more detailed account of the award submission."
The attachments describe PowerPoint briefing slides that staff officers routinely maintain to keep their commanders updated on the status of award nominations from their operations areas.
The slides came from the 82nd Airborne Division task force that oversaw U.S. operations in eastern Afghanistan at the time the Ganjgal battle took place and from its replacement unit, CJTF-101, from the 101st Airborne Division, which arrived in June 2010.
The attachments showed that Army Lt. Col. Fredrick O'Donnell filed Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination electronically on Dec. 18, 2009. A May 20, 2010, slide showed the file reaching U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, the Kabul-based headquarters of the U.S. contingent within the international military coalition, a day earlier. The coalition's commander also heads USFOR-A.
A footnote on an Aug. 21 slide said that Swenson's nomination then was "downgraded to DSC (Distinguished Service Cross)," but that the lesser award couldn't be conferred because "USFOR-A is currently out of certificates, but will process and return to CJ1 (a staff officer) ASAP." A note written by the investigating officer said that the downgrade "appears to be an error as USFOR-A does not have the authority to downgrade a MoH."
An Aug. 28 slide showed that the lower award then was sent to U.S. Central Command, in Tampa, Fla., for approval. Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination, the slide said, was "downgraded to DSC and was forwarded to CENTCOM."
No traces of Swenson's Medal of Honor packet "or any other award" were found on any military computers save for an "incomplete" Medal of Honor file recovered from SIPRNET, the classified system from which the so-called WikiLeaks documents were downloaded, the attachments said.
Asked why the original packet had disappeared from the computer system dedicated for awards, Collins replied, "I have no explanation for that."
The period in which the slides showed the downgrade taking place correspond with the second month of now-retired Army Gen. David Petraeus' stint as ISAF commander. He is now the CIA director.
However, Petraeus, who by regulation was required to recommend approval or disapproval of the nomination, told McClatchy last week that he "has no recollection of seeing this packet."
Army and Defense Department regulations limit commanders to three options: recommending approval, disapproval or disapproval with a downgrade to a lower award. Once a recommendation is made, the nomination must be forwarded up the command chain until it reaches the secretary of defense and the president, who has the sole authority to approve or downgrade it.
"Nominations for the Medal of Honor are considered so special and so exceptional that the nominating process is controlled by a Defense Department directive and not the services," said Fredric Borch, a retired Army colonel and an expert on U.S. military decorations.
Several experts dismissed the notion that a Medal of Honor packet could be lost once filed in the Army's computerized awards system.
"Assuming the nomination was entered into the system, it seems improbable to me that it disappeared," Borch said.
The services devote enormous energy and attention to shepherding Medal of Honor nominations to approval, especially given the rarity with which the medals have been awarded in Iraq and Afghanistan, experts said. Ten have been conferred, only three of them to living recipients, prompting congressional hearings on complaints from lawmakers, military commanders and veterans' groups that the requirements have been quietly tightened, a charge the Pentagon denies.
Moreover, the experts said, unofficial word rapidly travels to the top of the military when a Medal of Honor recommendation is made, and service leaders closely track its progress up the command chain.
Sterner said an improper downgrade could be ordered only at a senior level. "When you are dealing with a packet like this, it's a high priority, high profile," he said. "You are not going to have a low-level clerk with either the authority or the temerity" to make that decision.
An 82nd Airborne staff officer contacted by investigators had no recollection of handling Swenson's nomination or briefing her 101st Airborne successor, the letter attachments said.
The attachments contained no conclusions that the file was lost because of staffing turnovers. Instead, the investigators said that "the discrepancies between the information on the slides and the actual status of the award could not be resolved."
In resubmitting Swenson's nomination, Allen may have created new complications.
By approving the nomination, Obama could create conflicting Marine and Army accounts of the battle, fueling questions about what supposedly is a rigorous Medal of Honor approval process.
Moreover, Swenson's packet must be accompanied by a "timeline detailing specific processing dates for the MoH recommendation," according to Pentagon rules. That means including the evidence of an improper downgrade.