At a stately White House ceremony on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will extol former Army Capt. William Swenson's courage and award him the country's highest military decoration.
But beyond the pageantry is a convoluted tale not told in the official Army narrative detailing Swenson’s heroics when he and his troops were ambushed in Afghanistan more than four years ago.
Even as Swenson receives his Medal of Honor, a Pentagon investigation is unfolding into why the former Army officer’s award nomination once vanished. It has been alleged that military brass may have derailed the approval process because Swenson pointed blame at superiors in the aftermath of the costly battle.
“It’s crazy,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who pushed for the investigation. “The last thing you should have is a politicized Medal of Honor process.”
Being candid about the battle put Swenson’s nomination in the cross hairs, Hunter said.
“He came out and was honest about what happened,” Hunter told Yahoo News. “He was critical as an officer in the Army should be. You’re not supposed to be a robot; you’re supposed to voice your opinions, especially when things go tactically wrong.”
2009 Battle of Ganjgal
Swenson, a Seattle native on his second tour in eastern Afghanistan, was an embedded adviser mentoring members of the Afghan National Security Forces. On the morning of Sept. 8, 2009, he and other U.S. trainers were leading a team of Afghan soldiers and police on foot for a peacekeeping mission into the rural community of Ganjgal when they were surprised by 60 well-armed Taliban insurgents.
A fierce firefight ensued, but the coalition task force was outgunned and quickly surrounded. The battle ultimately claimed the lives of five Americans and 10 of their Afghan counterparts. Seventeen others were wounded. The Army says the bloodshed would have been worse if not for Swenson’s gallantry.
“In seven hours of continuous fighting, Swenson braved intense enemy fire, and willfully put his life in danger against the enemy’s main effort, multiple times in service of his fallen and wounded comrades, his unit, his country, and his endangered Afghan partners,” according to a written Army account.
But during the battle, Swenson also repeatedly radioed superiors at a nearby base to request air and artillery support to rescue pinned-down troops. Subsequent investigations determined that three Army officers rejected many of Swenson’s pleas and failed to notify higher commands that troops were under fire.
Swenson didn’t hold back when interviewed by military investigators. According to stories by McClatchy Newspapers and the Military Times, he blasted the U.S. commanders in Afghanistan for their rules of engagement, charging that they put political reasons of trying to minimize civilian casualties ahead of U.S. concerns.
According to documents reviewed by the Military Times, Swenson asked why he was “being second-guessed by [higher-ups] or somebody that's sitting in an air-conditioned” tactical operations center. “Why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” he said. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo.”
“I’m not a politician. I’m just the guy on the ground asking for that ammunition to be dropped because it is going to save lives,” he said, according to a transcript obtained by McClatchy Newspapers.
According to reports, two Army officers were given written reprimands for their “negligent” leadership, which contributed “directly to the loss of life which ensued.”
Swenson, now 34, left the Army in February 2011 and is back living in Seattle. “My forced early retirement,” he recently told the Washington Post. But Swenson hasn’t spoken publicly about the battle of Ganjgal or the delay with his Medal of Honor nomination. He did not return a message from Yahoo News.
The Lost Nomination
Shortly after Ganjgal, Swenson and Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer were both nominated for their valiant acts during the battle. Suspicion grew when Obama awarded Meyer the Medal of Honor on Sept. 15, 2011, but there was no mention of Swenson’s nomination, which Rep. Hunter says was nowhere to be found for 19 months.
Even Meyer spoke out. According to the Military Times, Meyer wrote the senior officer on the White House National Security Council and described Swenson as “the centerpiece for command and control in a raging firefight that never died down."
The Army says approving a nomination packet – which includes dozens of supporting documents that must be vetted by top commanders, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense before submission to the president for a final decision – can take up to three years.
“In Swenson's case, an official investigation determined his packet was lost as a result of high turnover within the organization recommending the award,” Army spokesperson Tatjana Christian told Yahoo News by email last week. “The nomination packet was subsequently re-created and forwarded for review. The Army is reviewing ways to ensure this type of injustice does not happen again.”
[SLIDESHOW: Photos of Capt. Swenson in Afghanistan]
But stories by McClatchy Newspapers’ Jonathan Landay cast doubt on the Army’s explanation that the Swenson nomination was merely misplaced.
McClatchy, which obtained memos from the Army’s internal probe, reported that investigators discovered there was an attempt to reduce Swenson’s original nomination to a lesser award before it vanished. That would have been in violation of Army and Defense Department regulations, since only the president has the authority to downgrade a Medal of Honor nomination.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010, told a McClatchy reporter in August 2012 that he had “no recollection of seeing” Swenson’s packet. But the Army found Petraeus signed Swenson’s Medal of Honor packet on July 28, 2010, McClatchy reported. Yahoo News emailed Petraeus, who did not answer questions about the alleged discrepancy.
Army investigators also discovered that Swenson’s original nomination was one of two Medal of Honor packets received at U.S. command headquarters in Afghanistan on May 19, 2010. The separate packet (unrelated to Ganjgal) was logged and tracked concurrently with Swenson’s, but didn’t disappear.
The Army’s now-closed internal investigation “did not reveal any suspected criminal activity,” McClatchy reported.
Still Seeking Answers
“A Medal of Honor packet doesn’t get lost unless somebody wants it to get lost,” war historian Doug Sterner told Yahoo News.
Sterner, a longtime curator of a military valor awards database, said the Swenson Medal of Honor wouldn’t have happened without the McClatchy reporting, and pressure from Rep. Hunter’s office.
“It’s one that could have gotten tragically swept under the carpet of our broken awards system,” Sterner said.
An inspector general’s office that handles cases involving top military and civilian defense officials is now investigating the alleged mishandling of the Swenson nomination. The Department of Defense did not reply to messages from Yahoo News seeking comment.
Hunter, a Marine officer before entering politics, wants the inspector general investigation to go beyond Swenson’s case. Like Sterner, he believes the process has become bureaucratic, and that too few awards have been issued during the global war on terror.
“I shouldn’t have to write letters,” said Hunter, who has never met Swenson. “The IG shouldn’t have to investigate. This process should be aboveboard and transparent. It shouldn’t take four years. That’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Swenson will be the 13th service member awarded the Medal of Honor from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the first Army officer to earn the medal since the end of the Vietnam War.
On hand to witness the occasion will be the family of Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, Swenson’s close friend and battle buddy.
Westbrook was shot several times at Ganjgal. He was bleeding on the battlefield until Swenson charged through enemy fire to render him first aid. Helmet cameras worn by incoming pilots captured video of Swenson helping Westbrook aboard a medevac helicopter and stopping to kiss his friend’s forehead before returning to the battle. Sgt. Westbrook made it to Walter Reed military hospital in Maryland, where he died 29 days later.
“I thank him for that time that I got to spend with my husband,” his widow, Charlene Westbrook, said. “I thank Will for that.”
Westbrook said her husband would have been proud of Swenson’s Medal of Honor, but not the process it took to finally get invited to the White House.
“I sincerely don’t believe that the Department of the Army lost, misplaced, or whatever they want to call it,” she said. “They didn’t want it to come out or what? That’s what happened. That’s the truth. They ignored their calls.”