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Swenson Medal of Honor ceremony exposes scars, promotes healing

Oct. 19, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Swenson MoH MWM 20131015
President Obama presents former Army Capt. Will Swenson with the Medal of Honor at the White House on Oct. 15. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Army Capt. Will Swenson, right, has disputed Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer's account of the Battle of Ganjgal. (File photos)

When President Obama draped the Medal of Honor around Army Capt. Will Swenson’s neck for his heroism during a hellacious battle in Afghanistan, the most famous service member who fought alongside him — Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer — was not present.

Meyer received the same award two years ago for his valor in Ganjgal, the mountainside village in Kunar province where one of the war’s most tragic and violent clashes unfolded in 2009. It marks the first time in nearly 50 years that two service members have received the Medal of Honor for actions in a the same battle, and survived it, Obama said.

Five U.S. service members, nine Afghan troops and an Afghan interpreter died as a result of the clash, which began when 60-plus well-armed insurgents launched an ambush Sept. 8, 2009. More than a dozen other troops were wounded. The battle was plagued also by a lack of timely fire support and aviation assistance, even as those on the ground pleaded for it.

Meyer’s absence at Swenson’s Oct. 15 White House ceremony underscores the deep scars created by the battle and during the four years since. Swenson received the Medal of Honor after a long delay, caused by the Army losing his nomination’s paperwork, and it was welcomed by many attendees as a chance to heal. The two war heroes remain at odds over the specifics of what happened on the battlefield, however.

Meyer, 25, said he did not attend Swenson’s ceremony because the captain did not invite him. As a matter of course, recipients can attend such ceremonies by working through the Medal of Honor Society or another organization, but he elected not to do so. Swenson, 34, was limited to several dozen invitations, and devoted them to family members who lost loved ones in the battle, fellow troops who fought in Ganjgal, and his own family.

“I was not invited, but the day wasn’t about me,” Meyer said. “It was about Captain Swenson getting what he deserved, and I’m glad he finally got it.”

Swenson, who attended Meyer’s ceremony two years ago, did not respond to interview requests. He told reporters in a brief statement outside the White House 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. “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.”

Meyer acknowledged that he did not invite several surviving members of his embedded training team to his 2011 ceremony, saying he had limited invitations, too. “I invited the people who were the most supportive in my life,” he said.

Those missing from Meyer’s ceremony included Lt. Col. Kevin Williams and Capt. Ademola Fabayo, the top officers in Meyer’s unit in Afghanistan, Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan. Fabayo received the Navy Cross for heroism in Ganjgal, while Williams was wounded in the battle and later received the Bronze Star with V. Williams nominated Meyer for the Medal of Honor. He and Fabayo were present for Swenson’s ceremony.

Killed in the battle were three Marines and a sailor: Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. They were separated from their team when insurgents launched the ambush and were eventually cut down by gunfire.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, 41, died a month later due to medical complications from a gunshot wound he sustained.

Fog of war

A day before the White House ceremony, McClatchy Newspapers published a story questioning anew the truthfulness of Meyer’s recollection of the battle and the Corps’ official narrative of it. The story was written by Jonathan Landay, a journalist who was embedded with U.S. forces that day and witnessed the first 90 minutes of the battle.

Landay first accused the Corps and Meyer of exaggerating his deeds in a 2011 investigative report. He wrote then that witness statements from other service members present during the battle showed that details in the Marine Corps’ narrative were “untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated.” His latest story went further, saying newly released video captured by an Army helicopter crew debunk details in the Corps’ account of Meyer’s actions and in Meyer’s 2012 book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War.”

One video depicts Swenson giving Westbrook a kiss as the wounded soldier is loaded onto the medevac helicopter. But it also shows no insurgents on the floor of the Ganjgal Valley as the helicopter lands, contradicting Meyer’s book, Landay alleges. Meyer’s book says he and then-Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez were in a Humvee that was swarmed by insurgents shortly before the helicopter landed.

In an interview with Landay, Swenson declined to comment on whether Meyer’s vehicle was swarmed, but said the video captures what he remembers.

“Those videos allowed me to relive the reality of that battlefield: what I saw, what other people saw, where people were, the valley, the terraces, the trees, the friendlies,” Swenson told Landay. “It shows the truth of that battle, a truth I never expected to see again.”

Meyer insists the swarm occurred. Rodriguez-Chavez, now a gunnery sergeant, corroborated that in an interview with Marine Corps Times last year, saying the enemy fighters were close enough that Meyer engaged one of them with an M4 carbine. The gunny received the Navy Cross for his actions that day.

Another bone of contention is the number of individuals Meyer is credited with saving. A narrative of the battle produced in 2011 by the Marine Corps Division of Public Affairs said Meyer saved 13 U.S. service members and 23 Afghan forces. That information was used widely by the media ahead of Meyer’s White House ceremony. There were only 11 U.S. service members in the valley, however, four of whom died that day. Others were posted farther away, and faced less danger.

Meyer acknowledged the information associated with his award wasn’t flawless, but he questioned the merit of examining specifics. Doing so “won’t bring my guys back,” and it does not change that they did not have timely fire support or assistance from helicopters, he said. Two Army officers were later reprimanded for negligence leading to loss of life. Meyer also defended Col. Chris Hughes, who led the public affairs effort for Meyer’s award and has continued to offer Meyer support.

“Looking back, could things have been different? Sure,” Meyer said. “But things also could have been different on the battlefield from the Army. We can live in the past, or we can try to change the future.”

The public affairs effort for Meyer’s award was led by Col. Chris Hughes. Asked about potential mistakes, Hughes said Oct. 16 that the attention should be on Swenson and the service members who died in the battle.

“There will be a time and place in the future to discuss these aspects of this matter,” Hughes said. “Media roundtables, discussion panels all come to mind.”

Healing the wounds

The Corps released a congratulatory statement the day of Swenson’s White House ceremony. U.S. forces in Ganjgal “joined a small fraternity of patriots who answered the call of duty with little or no hope of survival, risking everything for their mission and their comrades,” it said in part.

Swenson and those with him are “heroes in the truest sense of the term,” the statement continued. Then it addressed the potential discrepancies.

“Though accounts of the battle have been rendered from different perspectives, the battle has been thoroughly researched and all accounts confirm that the courage displayed by these men far exceeded the bounds of their duty,” it said.

The dearth of senior Marine officers at the ceremonies surprised some of the Marines and families in attendance, however. Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett attended Swenson’s ceremony at the White House, but neither Commandant Gen. Jim Amos nor Assistant Commandant Gen. John Paxton were present.

The following day, no Marine generals were present as Swenson was inducted into the Pentagon Hall of Heroes. About two dozen Marines and soldiers who fought alongside him were recognized, including Fabayo, Rodriguez-Chavez and Williams. They shared hugs with Swenson and each other in an emotionally charged moment.

Lt. Col. Dave Nevers, a spokesman for the commandant, said Amos “could not be more sincere in his admiration” for Swenson, and had a hand in crafting the statement released by the Corps. A long-scheduled meeting prevented him from attending the White House ceremony, and he departed for a trip to the West Coast the following day, Nevers said. Paxton also was out of town, he added.

The Corps anticipated that Bailey would attend the Hall of Heroes ceremony, but he was unable to do so because of a funeral, Nevers said.

“Another Marine general was due to attend — and in fact was dressed for the ceremony and en route — but was delayed at the last minute,” Nevers said.

The ceremonies and related events were emotional for many of those attending, said Susan Price, Kenefick’s mother. She is grateful she saw Swenson receive the Medal of Honor, she said, and found happiness in spending time with Marines and soldiers who fought alongside her late son. She added that while she does not know all the dynamics between Swenson and Meyer, she hopes they can sit down someday and find common ground.

Brian Johnson, the fallen lieutenant’s father, said he had never spoke to Swenson before the events in Washington, and called him “a first-class man” who is now part of the Johnson family.

But Johnson added that he is aware that family is currently divided, and it hurts him tremendously.

“I am not going to choose sides,” he said. “Frankly, I love all of my family, even when they fight, even when I disagree with them. It doesn’t matter because they are still family. I just hope that with time we can heal all these wounds and get together to celebrate the lives of our fallen heroes. I’m pretty sure that’s what Mike Johnson would have wanted.”

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