Former Army Capt. Will Swenson, center in red tie, attends a Sept. 15 White House ceremony in which Dakota Meyer was presented the Medal of Honor by President Obama. Swenson is now being considered for the Medal of Honor for his actions during the 2009 battle at Ganjgal, Afghanistan. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
The Pentagon’s investigative agency is examining a controversial Medal of Honor case that has been in limbo for nearly four years, according to a new letter from a congressman concerned about the issue.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday that he is aware Defense Department Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks “re-opened an investigation into the Medal of Honor nomination of Army Captain Will Swenson.” The new review began recently, said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter. A spokeswoman for the IG, Bridget Serchak, declined to comment.
It’s the latest twist in a case that began on Sept. 8, 2009, when the Army captain and other U.S. forces were ambushed in Kunar province, Afghanistan, while serving as advisers to Afghan forces there. The six-hour battle in the village of Ganjgal killed five U.S. troops, and launched a national outcry about why they were repeatedly denied air and artillery support by Army officers on a nearby base.
Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s top combat valor award, in September 2011 for repeatedly braving enemy fire in the battle to recover four of the casualties, who had gone missing on the battlefield. Two other Marines received the Navy Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor — in 2011, and a fallen soldier received the Silver Star posthumously in April for heroism that day.
Swenson has received nothing despite widespread acknowledgment that he coordinated U.S. forces in the battle and saved numerous lives in the process. Army officials said last year that the captain was initially put up for the Medal of Honor in late 2009, only for his nomination to be lost. It was subsequently resubmitted and approved by the Pentagon, but is now said to be stalled at the White House.
It wasn’t clear what aspect of Swenson’s case the IG is reviewing. A so-called “15-6” investigation into the handling of Swenson’s initial package was carried out, but the Army has not released it, despite numerous requests from members of the media and Congress. In his letter to Hagel on Tuesday, Hunter reiterated a previous request for a copy of the investigation report.
The case has been emotionally charged from the start. Swenson, Meyer and family members of the service members lost that day all have been critical of commanders abandoning troops on the battlefield that day, and the military’s handling of the incident afterward.
The resulting firefight lasted at least six hours, beginning shortly after dawn. U.S. forces on the battlefield braved rifle and machine-gun fire repeatedly, while Army officers at a nearby tactical operations center repeatedly denied their requests for fire support, according to subsequent investigations conducted by the military.
Interviewed afterward by military investigators, Swenson unloaded on the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers at a nearby tactical operations center who didn’t send help and the second-guessing he experienced while requesting fire support, according to a copy of his witness statement.
“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” Swenson told investigators, according to redacted documents reviewed by Military Times. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander. I want that f---er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f---er.”
Those comments raised questions about whether his angry criticism was part of the reason he had not been recognized — a charge the Army has denied. Rather, Swenson’s initial recommendation was lost in Afghanistan “due to failures at multiple levels in tracking and processing the award, and that high turnover of personnel and staffs in theater contributed to the problem,” said Army Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, last year.
In April, the Army awarded fallen Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest combat award, more than three years after the battle. He was gravely wounded in the right cheek and neck, and medically evacuated from the battlefield. He died Oct. 7, 2009, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington due to medical complications from his wounds.
His widow, Charlene Westbrook, said in an interview that waiting for the Army to decide what to do about her husband’s heroism was a long, frustrating process. She credited Swenson with helping to push her husband’s award through. Swenson has since left the Army, and attended Westbrook’s ceremony in a dark suit, dark shoulder-length hair and a thick beard.
Killed in the battle that day were four members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton. At least eight Afghan troops and an interpreter also were killed.