President Obama presents retired Army Capt. Will Swenson with the Medal of Honor at the White House on Oct. 15, 2013. Swenson received the medal for his actions in the 2009 Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan. Swenson has since returned to active duty. (Charles Dharapak/The Associatged Press)
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Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus said Thursday that as the top commander in Afghanistan in 2010 he had “big, big fish in the fryer,” so it should come as no surprise that he does not recall his effort to downgrade a controversial soldier’s Medal of Honor packet.
Petraeus’ comments came in response to a new Defense Department Inspector General report that concluded the initial Medal of Honor nomination for Army Capt. William Swenson — a document that was was inexplicably lost for a year — was last seen on Petraeus’ desk in July 2010.
“I just don’t have any recollection of it,” Petraeus said in a telephone interview with Military Times.
He noted that the MoH packet came to his desk just several weeks after he took command in Kabul, when the war effort was at a critical phase.
“I had tons of things going on. You have stuff coming across your desk all day, every day,” he said. “I know when everyone isolates their attention on this, they can say, ‘How could you not remember that?’ Well, we had some pretty big, big fish in the fryer in those days.”
Swenson received the Medal of Honor — the first living officer to earn one since Vietnam — last year in a ceremony at the White House. Yet the four-year process of approving the valor award was studded with controversy.
Swenson accused unnamed senior officials of derailing his packet in retaliation for criticisms that the young captain leveled against commanders for their cautious use of airstrikes in support of ground-level troops under fire.
Swenson said his radio request for airstrikes was denied on Sept. 8, 2009, when his unit was ambushed in what became known as the Battle of Ganjgal. Swenson spent hours under fire, helping to pull wounded and dead soldiers into medevac helicopters.
Petraeus acknowledged to the IG that he was aware of Swenson’s criticisms and agreed that, at the time, approval of airstrikes “had become overly bureaucratic.” Petraeus said weighing the risks of Afghan civilian casualties against the need to support troops in danger was a “very, very tough issue,” according to the IG report.
Petraeus said there was no link between the missing MoH packet and Swenson’s criticism.
“I think folks have, you know, made a bit of a conspiracy out of this. They are developing a conspiracy theory that is just not warranted,” Petraeus said Thursday.
Swenson’s packet came to Petraeus’ desk as U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan were rising and the U.S. military had renewed its commitment to the war effort that for years was overshadowed by Iraq.
Petraeus assumed command unexpectedly after his predecessor, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was summarily fired in June 2010 after he was quoted in a magazine article criticizing and insulting civilian colleagues and White House officials.
“I had some pretty consuming jobs in those periods and [the Medal of Honor packet] was not a big area of focus for me, to put it mildly,” Petraeus said.
The IG said documents show that in late July 2010 Petraeus sought to change Swenson’s MoH packet by recommending it be downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. Only the president can approve or deny an MoH nomination, but others in the chain of command can make recommendations.
The IG said it was unclear why Petraeus recommended the downgrade.
One week after making that recommendation, Petraeus, on Aug. 4, 2010, issued a new “tactical directive” that loosened restrictions on approving airstrikes in Afghanistan.
That was welcomed by warfighters who felt it was a move away from previous rules of engagement that prioritized the prevention of civilian casualties over the safety of troops in combat.
“I was surprised when they showed me a document that indicated that I had recommended a downgrade,” Petraeus said. “My general inclination on awards … was a predisposition to recommend approval or sometime even upgrade because of my assessment that we were not sufficiently recognizing those who were engaged in the toughest actions.
“I was encouraging people to ensure that our men and women were being appropriately recognized,” Petraeus said.
The general also said the suggestion that he, or anyone in his command, would seek to retaliate against outspoken internal critics is nonsense.
“I was a guy who tolerated, even preserved and protected, the outspoken,” he said.
“H.R. McMaster worked for me many times,” Petraeus said, referring to the two-star Army general who is well known as a critic of the Army’s conventional wisdom.
After Petraeus recommended a downgrade for Swenson’s medal, his staff failed to forward the packet to U.S. Central Command and Army Human Resources Command as military regulations required, according to the IG.
About a year later, when Army officials began asking questions about the nomination, the original packet was recovered from a computer hard drive at a task force headquarters in Afghanistan’s Regional Command East.
From there it was sent up the chain again, after Petraeus relinquished command in Kabul, and ultimately was approved by the White House.
Petraeus said there was no excuse for the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul losing a Medal of Honor packet.
“None of this is in any way an excuse for the bureaucratic snafus, which are unacceptable,” he said.