WASHINGTON — It was a tender moment that demonstrated the brotherhood of the U.S. servicemen who fought for their lives in a remote Afghanistan province four years ago. In the heat of battle, Army Capt. William Swenson leaned in and kissed the head of a severely wounded comrade while loading him into an evacuation helicopter.
On Tuesday, President Obama cited that moment — captured in a video taken by a medevac crewman — as he presented Swenson, 34, with the Medal of Honor for his valor in the Ganjgal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Swenson, who has since left the military and lives in Seattle, is credited with risking his life to help save other U.S. troops and Afghan allies and retrieve the bodies of four Americans who were killed Sept. 8, 2009.
“Amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he 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 Swenson during a ceremony attended by 250 guests, including Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, first lady Michelle Obama and several previous medal recipients.
Obama noted that of the nearly 3,500 times the country has awarded the medal, the video of Swenson “may be the first time that we can actually bear witness to a small fraction of those actions for ourselves.”
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Swenson did not speak during the White House ceremony. Afterward, an Army spokesman confirmed that Swenson had asked to return to active duty more than two years after he left the service. “We are currently reviewing his request and processing it within established policy,” said the spokesman, George Wright.
A return to service — Swenson would have to undergo a drug test and background check, as is routine — would be a remarkable turnabout.
Swenson’s path to the White House ceremony was a rocky one. After he criticized his Army superiors for failing to provide enough air and artillery support, his medal nomination was delayed for years. Army officials said they lost his nomination packet in the computer system for 19 months.
He has been unemployed since resigning from the Army in February 2011.
Swenson became the second service member to accept the medal for the Ganjgal battle. The other recipient, former Marine Corps Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who accepted the award in 2011, was not in attendance Tuesday. Swenson has expressed skepticism about the accuracy of Meyer’s account of the battle.
Two other Marines, Ademola Fabayo and Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who helped Swenson and Meyer in the rescue missions, attended Tuesday’s ceremony. They both have received the Navy Cross for their actions.
Swenson said he would accept the medal in honor of fellow soldiers and Marines and family members of those who died.
“It does not really belong to me; it belongs to that event and the people I stood with,” he said of the medal.
In an interview with The Washington Post, he said he had no memory of kissing the head of Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who had been shot in the cheek and shoulder, until he saw the video earlier this year.
“You could have told me it happened, and I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said in one of his first extended interviews since the battle. “But it did, and it was captured on film. And it offered a glimpse of the humanity that does occur on battlefields.”
Westbrook, a married father of three, survived for a month after leaving the battlefield on the helicopter before dying of complications from a blood transfusion. His widow, Charlene Westbrook, was in the audience at the White House on Tuesday.
“Charlene will always be grateful for the final days she was able to spend with her husband,” Obama said.
The president described Swenson as a “pretty low-key guy,” who would rather be on a Pacific Northwest mountain or on a forested trail instead of at an elaborate ceremony in front of hundreds of people at the White House.
Swenson and Westbrook had been working for a year as trainers with the Afghan Border Police in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. They were trying to prepare the Afghan forces to oversee remote tribal areas that were often teeming with insurgents and not aligned with the Afghan national government.
On the day of the battle, about 11 U.S. trainers and 80 Afghan troops set out to meet with the town elders. As soon as they reached the valley, they were ambushed by Taliban fighters hidden in the higher mountain terrain that ringed the valley on three sides.
In all, five Americans and 10 Afghan service members, along with an Afghan interpreter, were slain.
Looking back on their last moments together in the video, Swenson said: “To see him and to see me in that situation gives me comfort … I would trade anything for that not to be our last moment, but that was our last moment, and I’ll always have that now.”
This report includes information from the McClatchy Washington bureau.