Army Captain William Swenson will be presented with the nation’s highest military honor at the White House today.
When President Obama hangs the medal around his neck it will be the end of a rocky road.
Swenson is credited with risking his life to save fellow troops and recover bodies during a battle in Afghanistan in 2009.
Since then Captain Swenson has waged a bitter dispute with the military over the narrative of the battle, a fight which cast doubt on the exploits of Dakota Meyers, a Marine who has already received the Medal of Honor for what he did in that same battle.
- Washington Post: Former Army Capt. William Swenson to receive Medal of Honor at White House
- Washington Post: For Medal of Honor recipient Capt. William Swenson, a rocky path to the White House
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
At the White House today, President Obama awards the Medal of Honor to Captain William Swenson. He's the first Army officer who served in Iraq or Afghanistan to receive the award. And Swenson is being recognized for trying to save fellow troops and recover bodies during an intense ambush along the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2009. Five Americans and 10 Afghan troops died in that firefight. But this is also the story of Captain Swenson's life after he left Afghanistan and his dispute with the military over what actually happened in Ganjgal Valley that day.
David Nakamura writes about it in The Washington Post. David, welcome.
DAVID NAKAMURA: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: This is an incredible story, David. So first of all, just tell us about this battle. It was one of the worst for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What actually happened?
NAKAMURA: On this morning of September 8, 2009, they and several other American trainers, along with Afghan forces that were, you know, allied with the United States forces, were going in to talk to the village elders. But as soon as they sort of got over the mountain pass and descended into the valley, they came under heavy, heavy fire from Taliban fighters who had sneaked into the area. And so it set up what turned out to be a seven-hour battle and rescue mission in which Captain Swenson played a very pivotal role.
CHAKRABARTI: I mean it seems as if they were very much outgunned. An embedded reporter who you've spoken with describes just horrific conditions. There's a video that The Washington Post has produced that features Captain Swenson. We've got a link to it at our website, hereandnow.org. And tell us a little bit about what he actually did.
NAKAMURA: As soon as they came under fire, they were quickly separated from each other. And the lead group of Marines got isolated in the house. Swenson and another group of Army and Marine Corps troops were farther back, along with the journalist Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers, who's reportedly excellently on this. And Captain Swenson then began to try to call in air support. He's told me since that this was a well-trained Taliban force, not the typical local forces, but really a sort of a well-trained group that had come in here, seemed to have been tipped off and the mission compromised.
And what Captain Swenson did, along with others, was his group began to take casualties. He helped moved them back and out of the direct fire. But in doing so, he also tried to call in air and helicopter support, along with artillery support. And that's where he had trouble convincing his superiors back at the base camp to do so because the rules of engagement had been tightened.
The general at that time, Stanley McChrystal, who was the commanding general, was worried about casualties of civilians. So they did not get much air support. They took on a lot of casualties. Captain Swenson even had to stand up and throw a grenade after a Taliban fighter got close enough to demand his surrender.
CHAKRABARTI: So David, as you described, they had trouble getting air cover and artillery support. And in the video that The Washington Post has produced, the reporter who - you mentioned who was embedded with them - said that they were basically on their own for 90 minutes. And we've got a clip here from that video in which Captain William Swenson describes how he helped one of his fellow soldiers who'd been gravely wounded, Kenneth Westbrook, who you mentioned. And we see him from - I believe it's a helmet cam from one of the helicopter pilots, putting Kenneth Westbrook into a helicopter, kissing him on his - on the forehead and saying it's going to be OK. And here's how Swenson describes that moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
CAPTAIN WILLIAM SWENSON: I tried to have a moment with him, tried to give him a little pep talk, tried to say it's going to be OK. Helicopters are loud(ph). So I reached in, gave him a peck on the head, and unknown to me was the nature or the seriousness of his injuries. I never got to see him again.
CHAKRABARTI: And that's because Kenneth Westbrook, a little while later, even though he made it back to the United States, died of complications from the wound that he sustained in Ganjgal Valley. David, I understand that William Swenson had been nominated for the Medal of Honor not long after this battle happened. Why has it taken him so long for it to be actually awarded to him?
NAKAMURA: Absolutely. And William Swenson has been asking that question for several years. It's been four years for him to win award. He helped save - he's credited with helping recover the bodies, the four Americans who were killed in that battle, directly on the battlefield, and helping rescue other Americans, Afghan fighters, and evacuate them from the premises.
What happened after the battle was that Captain Swenson was interviewed in an after-action internal report. And he was heavily critical of his superiors for not providing air cover, which he said, you know, directly led to some of these deaths. And that criticism was thought now to have come back and used against him by his superiors.
In 2011, about a year and a half later, Dakota Meyer, a Marine Corps corpsman at that time of the battle, was on the battlefield as well and helped also rescue some of the other troops. He received the Medal of Honor. And at that time it was brought to the attention of the Army that William Swenson had been nominated. What happened? A congressman got involved, asking in letters, where did this nomination go?
The Army did an internal investigation under the public pressure, and it was - it is said to have lost his nomination packet in the bureaucracy for almost two years. This explanation was met with widespread skepticism. It looked like he had been blacklisted or worse. So the Army then, at that point, two years ago, renominated him, put it forward again, but it still took two more years.
CHAKRABARTI: What happened to Captain Swenson since 2009? He retired from the Army in 2011, but you write in The Post that he's struggled since then. He hasn't even been able to find a job.
NAKAMURA: You know, a couple things are going on. I think, you know, he expected a full career in the military. He's 34 years old, and I think that he is now searching to kind of have closure both on this, what's happened to him, and hopefully this ceremony. You know, he says it's not about him. It's about, you know, what happened that day and about his fellow soldiers. But he's talked to me before about, you know, the State Department, other things, but I don't know if it'll be easy for him to go back into government service.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, before we wrap up, I want to play another piece of sound from Captain Swenson himself. And here he is, again, from this Washington Post video talking about the mission in the Ganjgal Valley on that day in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
SWENSON: It was an opportunity, truly, for that region to see the resolve of the Afghan government. What effect that had, it's not tangible, because it's a battle for perception.
CHAKRABARTI: It's interesting because he says in the video that Afghanistan, as a whole, is a battle for perception, every engagement. You also quote him as saying that he specializes in pyrrhic victories.
CHAKRABARTI: So I wonder how Captain Swenson - what he's told you about how he sees or how he looks back upon his service that day.
NAKAMURA: Well, I think that he, you know - and I think this is one of the reasons that he is accepting this award, even though he's angry with the military. He's still bitter with the Army and how they treated him, but I think what he's doing is saying I want to tell a story, this is my platform. I and the others who fought that day, we served as nobly as possible before, the year before, working with these village elders, and even as we were ambushed and fought our way out of a seven-hour, you know, terrible, terrible battlefield gunfight.
And he's saying now, this is the chance to tell that story. He acknowledges, hey, this region of Afghanistan remains up for grabs, remains distant from the central government. He says, you know, maybe another area saw U.S. and Afghan fighters working together and fighting off the Taliban and maybe that will convince other places to, hey, you know, the Americans are here to try to help and eventually come into the fold of the central government in Afghanistan, and that might make a difference in the future. So I think he's still hopeful despite the challenges of that day and since then.
CHAKRABARTI: David Nakamura is a reporter for The Washington Post. There's a link to the video and David's reporting at our website, hereandnow.org. David, thank you so very much.
NAKAMURA: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
CHAKRABARTI: It's a really remarkable story. I encourage you to go to hereandnow.org and read it in full. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.