Four years after he survived a brutal firefight in a remote Afghanistan valley that claimed the lives of five Americans, retired U.S. Army Capt. William Swenson will be hailed as a hero at the White House on Tuesday.
Swenson, 34, is credited with risking his life to help save his fellow troops and recover their bodies, feats that President Obama will recount when he presents Swenson with the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor.
But for Swenson, the award stands for more than his personal bravery during the seven-hour battle in the Ganjgal valley, near the Pakistan border, on Sept. 8, 2009. It is also a measure of vindication.
After returning from the battlefield, Swenson engaged in a lengthy and bitter dispute with the military over the narrative of one of the Afghan war’s most notorious firefights.
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The questions he raised resulted in reprimands for two other officers and what he believes was an effort by the Army to discredit him. His account also cast doubt on the exploits of another Medal of Honor winner from the same battle, Dakota Meyer of the Marine Corps.
United in war, the two men have taken far different paths since. Meyer has found celebrity and success, with a book and a personal assistant, boosted by a story Swenson considers an inflated and misleading account of that harrowing day.
Swenson — the first Army officer since Vietnam to win the medal — has been unemployed since leaving the service in 2011. Until recently, the Seattle man had a thick beard and long hair, in contrast to the clean-cut look of his military days
He escapes often to the mountains to find solitude in “my forced early retirement.”
“Are you familiar with Pyrrhic victories?” Swenson said recently. “That’s what I specialize in.”
Ganjgal remains one of the costliest battles of the 12-year Afghan conflict. In addition to the five U.S. deaths, 10 Afghan army troops and a translator were killed, while more than two dozen coalition troops were injured.
The troops were part of a coalition task force that set out that morning to meet with village elders, a mission designed to “separate the isolated mountain communities from insurgents,” according to the Army. Shortly after making their way over the rocky terrain and descending into the valley, they came under heavy fire from 60 well-armed Taliban fighters who had sneaked into the area overnight.
Overmatched and quickly separated from one another, the coalition troops fought for hours as insurgents rained down gunfire in the U-shaped mountain pass.
Some of the chaos was captured in a short video, recorded on the helmet cameras of two pilots of a medical-evacuation helicopter, that shows Swenson helping Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who was wounded, into the chopper. In the video, Swenson can be seen pausing to kiss his battlefield adviser on the forehead before returning to the fight.
Westbrook, a married father of three, survived for a month before dying in a U.S. hospital of complications from blood transfusions.
Toward the end of the battle, Swenson and Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo made two trips into the kill zone to rescue Afghan troops. Then they joined Meyer and Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who had been making separate rescue missions, to recover the bodies of three Marines, a Navy corpsman and their Afghan translator, who were found in a deep trench. (Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez were awarded the Navy Cross.)
In an interview with superiors several days later, Swenson lashed out at the military’s rules of engagement, which had been tightened by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an effort to limit civilian casualties. Swenson demanded to know why his superiors rejected many of his radio calls for air cover and artillery support. He asked why he was “being second-guessed by [higher-ups] or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned” office.
“Why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” he said, according to an account by the Military Times. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo.”
An Army investigation, finalized 1½ years later, resulted in severe reprimands of two officers who were in charge at the forward operating base that fielded Swenson’s calls for help.
War correspondent Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, who was embedded with the coalition troops, has written extensively about the battle. He called Swenson “one of the most upstanding and moral men I have met in my life, someone who believes in what he’s doing. He believes in the regulations, in accountability. He’s unwilling to accept the go-along, get-along.”
But it was Meyer who gained the most attention and acclaim — a 21-year-old from Kentucky who reportedly disregarded orders and rushed into the battle from a rear position after listening to the ambush on the radio.
On Sept. 14, 2011, Meyer visited the White House to have a beer with Obama. The next day he appeared in the East Room, where the president draped the Medal of Honor around his neck. He was the first living Marine to win the award in 38 years.
Obama hailed Meyer for helping save 13 Americans and 23 Afghans in a feat that “will be told for generations.”
Others were not convinced. Three months later, Landay published an exhaustive investigation, based on internal military documents and interviews with Afghan troops, that alleged the official narrative that supported Meyer’s award inflated the number of Americans he rescued and how many insurgents he killed.
Landay reported that 11 U.S. troops were on the battlefield and that four died that day. In his account, it was Swenson who led the final mission to retrieve the bodies of the four dead Americans, with Meyer in the back seat of the Humvee.
Landay emphasized that Meyer also performed heroically and that his fellow troops thought he deserved the medal, despite the contradictions.
The Marine Corps and Meyer have disputed Landay’s findings. Asked to comment, Meyer said through a spokeswoman: “I am very proud of Captain Swenson. He received the medal he deserves … My family and I will continue to have everyone who lost their lives that day in our thoughts and prayers.”
As Meyer accepted his award, Swenson’s medal nomination — first submitted by the Army in December 2009 — had vanished.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has never spoken with Swenson, but was incensed when he learned about his case last year.
A former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hunter was frustrated by what he called the “armchair bureaucracy sitting back at the Pentagon changing what the guys on the ground are saying happened.”
The congressman took up Swenson’s cause, writing letters to high-ranking military officials. “It’s taken four years for Swenson to get the medal,” Hunter said in an interview. “Don’t tell me you can’t do it in six months.”
After an internal investigation, Army officials concluded that Swenson’s digital nomination packet had been lost in the computer system for 19 months.
Landay also reported that the Army’s investigation had uncovered evidence that military officials may have improperly attempted to downgrade the original nomination to a Distinguished Service Cross.
An Army spokeswoman said this past week that Swenson’s award had not been downgraded and that Medal of Honor award procedures were not violated. Swenson was renominated in 2011 after Marine Gen. John Allen, then the commander in Afghanistan, took interest.
“The Army is reviewing ways to ensure this type of injustice does not happen again,” said spokeswoman Tatjana Christian, adding that it typically takes one to three years to process a Medal of Honor nomination before it reaches the White House.
She also noted that a medal was awarded this spring to Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun, a Korean War POW who died in captivity in 1951.
During the delay, Westbrook’s widow, Charlene Westbrook, who lives in Colorado, shared her frustrations in telephone conversations with Swenson. “It was almost like a blacklist,” she said in an interview. “He said something, criticized the upper ranks, and he’s being punished for it.”
Swenson retreated further into private life while Meyer became a prominent public figure. Last fall, Meyer published an autobiography, “Into the Fire,” cowritten by military writer Bing West. Meyer said in the book that he killed a Taliban fighter by bashing him on the head with a rock, a detail he had not told investigators after the battle.
In the book, Meyer and West praised Swenson and criticized the Army for its handling of his case. But Swenson remains skeptical of Meyer and the publicity he has sought. Swenson has not spoken publicly about the Ganjgal battle.
In recent days, Swenson pressed the Army to produce a section on the Medal of Honor website with maps and diagrams of the Ganjgal battle based on documents he provided. The site went online this past week.
Some of the information in the account, Swenson said, “is not going to mutually support other stories.”
One of the few people Swenson keeps in touch with from his Army days is Charlene Westbrook. The two have spoken monthly since Ganjgal, and last year he traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., where she was presented the Silver Star in honor of her husband.
When Swenson told her last month that his own medal had been approved, Westbrook said, “I cried, and he assured me he was accepting it for the team.”
Westbrook credited Swenson with helping her and her three adult sons cope with a series of family traumas.
Kenneth Westbrook’s older brother Marshall, a New Mexico National Guardsman, was killed during combat in Iraq in 2005. Last year, Marshall Westbrook’s daughter Nicole, 21, was slain in a random shooting in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
The Army widow said Swenson offered support when she flew to Seattle after her niece was shot, a sign, perhaps, that the former captain has not left his service days entirely behind.
“He’s my soldier,” Swenson said of his dead battlefield partner. “You take care of your soldiers.”