Former Capt. William D. Swenson received the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, more than four years after the ambush in Afghanistan that still poses painful questions for the high command and those who fought the battle of Ganjgal.
Swenson’s medal renewed debate over the actions at the battle of then-Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who in 2011 became the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam.
Swenson, who left the Army in February 2011 and now resides in Seattle, was the first Army officer since Vietnam to receive the Medal of Honor and the sixth living recipient of the MOH from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the White House ceremony, President Obama made no reference to the controversies surrounding the Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Kunar province near the Pakistan border, but instead praised Swenson’s heroism.
Obama recalled awarding the medal to Dakota Meyer for his actions in the same battle “not far away” from Swenson. The president noted that Meyer did not attend Swenson’s award ceremony.
Obama said that Swenson was leading a mixed force of Afghan National Army troops and their Army and Marine mentors near the village of Ganjgal when “on the outskirts of the village, all hell breaks loose.”
“Will Swenson was there for his brothers [during the battle] and he was there for their families [in the aftermath],” Obama said. The president said one of the survivors said “Will did things that nobody else would do” to save lives and recover the fallen.
During the course of the fight, Swenson helped Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook to a medical evacuation helicopter.
"This may be the first time we bear witness to a small portion of the action" of a Medal of Honor recipient, Obama said in reference to a video of the rescue taken by a crewmember’s helmet cam aboard the helicopter.
“Amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, [Swenson] does something unexpected. He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head -- a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms,” Obama said of during the ceremony before 250 guests, including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and several previous medal recipients.
Westbrook would later die of complications from his wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“Will, you are a remarkable role model for all of us,” Obama told Swenson, who had donned his Army captain’s dress uniform once again for the event. Swenson reportedly is considering a return to active duty.
The ceremony was over in 25 minutes, and the president and first lady Michelle Obama escorted Swenson from the White House East Room. Swenson later made a brief statement to reporters.
“Today I stand with the Medal of Honor,” Swenson said. “But this award was earned with a team, a team of our finest Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and our Afghan partners, standing side by side,” he said.
“And now that team includes Gold Star families who lost their fathers, sons and husbands that day. This medal represents them. It represents us,” Swenson said.
According to a lengthy account by the Army, including graphic descriptions of the battle and two videos from the helmet cams of medevac helicopter crews, the fight began before dawn under a full moon.
Swenson told the Washington Post that the Taliban had set a U-shaped ambush and the firefight escalated from “sporadic long shots to a ferocious amount of fire.”
Swenson and Westbrook were serving as embedded advisers to the Afghan National Border Police in support of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. Meyer was serving separately with an Embedded Training Team of Marines supporting the Afghans.
Four of the Marine ETTs -- Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospitalman Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22 -- were also killed in the battle.
One of the controversies that emerged in the aftermath of the fight was the denial of artillery fire support from a nearby firebase despite Swenson’s repeated calls for fire.
"Due to the close proximity of insurgent fighters to the ANSF positions, and the unavailability of smoke, multiple indirect fire missions were unsuccessful in deterring the enemy's advance and securing cover for the lead element's withdrawal,” according to the Army's account.
An embittered Swenson later lashed out at the chain of command for refusing his fire support requests.
“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 asked.
Another controversy involved the new rules of engagement ordered by then-Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander in Afghanistan at the time. The new rules stressed the avoidance of civilian casualties and collateral damage.
In February 2010, the Army issued reprimands to two Army officers at the TOC for their “negligence” in failing to respond to Swenson and in notifying higher command that troops at Ganjgal were in trouble.
The most troubling controversy involved the apparent rift between Swenson and Meyer over what happened at Ganjgal. Swenson appeared to take issue with Meyer’s account in his book “In the Line Of Fire,” written with author Bing West, a retired Marine colonel.
Swenson told the Washington Post that the Army’s account of the battle, to which he contributed, "is not going to mutually support other stories" -- a reference to Meyer’s book.
Jonathan Landay, a veteran war correspondent for the McClatchy Newspapers who was embedded with U.S. troops at Ganjgal, said in an article Tuesday that Meyer’s memoir conflicts with the accounts of the helicopter medevac crews and the videos of the medevac of Westbrook.
In the book, Meyer and West wrote that Meyer was firing numerous rounds at a “swarm” of Taliban as the helicopters arrived, but the crewmembers stated to Landay that valley floor was quiet at the time.
Meyer told the Marine Corps Times in a phone interview that he had lobbied hard for Swenson to receive the Medal of Honor, including sending letters to the White House. While disputing accounts in Meyer’s book, Landay has also written previously that Meyer deserved the medal.
In an e-mail reply included in Landay’s article, Bing West charged that Landay “has annually dredged up baseless innuendoes to attack the Medal of Honor process and to denigrate the valor of Meyer."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served as a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, raised questions again on why the initial recommendation for Swenson’s medal was lost by the Army, and also questioned the rules of engagement ordered by McChrystal and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who succeeded McChrystal as commander of the war effort in Afghanistan.