President Obama presents former Army Capt. Will Swenson with the Medal of Honor on Oct. 15. Army Secretary John McHugh said the award was 'overdue.' (Mike Morones/Staff)
As President Obama draped the Medal of Honor around Army Capt. Will Swenson’s neck, the officer closed his eyes, seemingly holding back his emotions. It had been a long, painful journey from the deadly Ganjgal Valley in Afghanistan to the nation’s capital.
Swenson, 34, received the nation’s top valor award in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. It marks only the second time in nearly 50 years that a Medal of Honor has been awarded to two survivors in the same battle. Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, 25, received the award two years ago for other acts of heroism performed the same day, Sept. 8, 2009.
The ceremony recalled three Marines, a sailor and a soldier who died as a result of the chaotic six-hour battle. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22, were cut down by gunfire on the battlefield. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, 41, died a month later due to medical complications from a gunshot wound he sustained.
Swenson told reporters after the ceremony that the value of his award was earned as part of a team that included the fallen service members and their families.
“Today, I stand with the Medal of Honor,” Swenson said in a brief statement outside the White House. “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. 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 left active duty in February 2011 and has been living in Seattle. But two U.S. officials told The Associated Press that he has asked to return to active duty, and the Army is working to allow it, the AP reported.
During the ceremony, the president said Swenson was a low-key hero whose dedication to his fellow service members should be remembered.
“I think our nation needs this ceremony today,” Obama said. “Moments like this, Americans like Will, remind us what our country can be at its best: a nation of citizens who look out for one another; who meet our obligations to one another, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard — maybe especially when it’s hard.”
What Swenson did
Swenson is credited with repeatedly braving enemy fire in the battle, which occurred in mountainous Kunar province near the Pakistan border. He was serving as an embedded training adviser to the Afghan National Border Police in support of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y.
More than 60 insurgents unleashed a hail of fire on them that included mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine-gun fire, and eventually outflanked coalition forces. Swenson repeatedly called for smoke to cover the withdrawal of lead elements in the patrol, and coordinated support from helicopters and artillery to evacuate wounded Afghan and U.S. forces from the battlefield.
Swenson ignored enemy radio transmissions demanding that he surrender and maneuvered to treat Westbrook, who had been shot in the cheek, according to military documents and interviews by Military Times. He threw a grenade at an advancing insurgent, and then helped move Westbrook to a helicopter for medical evacuation.
During the ceremony, Obama focused on what happened next. Video recently released by the Army shows Swenson carrying an orange panel to help the helicopter pilots find him on the ground. Without his helmet, he helped Westbrook get on the helicopter, and then gave him a kiss on the forehead — “a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms,” the president said. Swenson then went back into the valley to help others, facing more enemy fire.
“In our nation’s history, we have presented our highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, nearly 3,500 times for actions above and beyond the call of duty,” Obama said. “But this may be the first time that we can actually bear witness to a small fraction of those actions for ourselves. And today we honor the American in that video — the soldier who went back in — Captain William Swenson.”
The battle continued after Westbrook was evacuated. Swenson and then-Marine 1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo hopped into an unarmored Afghan Border Police pickup truck and re-entered the valley at least twice, evacuating wounded Afghan forces and bringing them back to a casualty collection point. At the same time, then-Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer pushed through the valley separately in a Humvee, recovering wounded soldiers and searching for four missing members of Meyer’s unit, Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan.
Swenson, Fabayo, Rodriguez-Chavez, Meyer and an Afghan interpreter then combined forces, hopping into a single armored Humvee and pushing into the enemy-held village to find the bodies 1st Lt. Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Johnson, Kenefick and Layton, according to military documents.
“When they reach the village, Will jumps out — drawing even more fire, dodging even more bullets,” Obama said. “But they reach those Americans, lying where they fell. Will and the others carry them out, one by one. They bring their fallen brothers home.”
Meyer was not at the ceremony Tuesday, but many other service members under fire in Ganjgal were. That includes Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez, who have since been promoted to captain and gunnery sergeant, respectively. They received the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for their heroism in a ceremony in 2011.
Obama asked all of the service members present in the Ganjgal Valley to stand, and they received a long ovation from those in attendance. The president then recognized the families of the service members who didn’t survive, all of whom traveled to the White House for the ceremony.
“Scripture tells us, ‘The greatest among you shall be your servant,’ ” Obama said. “Captain Will Swenson was a leader on that September morning. But like all great leaders, he was also a servant — to the men he commanded, to the more than a dozen Afghans and Americans whose lives he saved, to the families of those who gave their last full measure of devotion on that faraway field.”