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Capt. William Swenson at a pre-mission briefing in northern Kunar, Afghanistan, March 2009. (Army)
The White House announced Monday that former Army Capt. Will Swenson will receive the Medal of Honor, more than four years after he led a small contingent of U.S. military advisers through the teeth of a deadly ambush in eastern Afghanistan.
Swenson was an embedded trainer working with an Afghan Border Police mentor team on Sept. 8, 2009, when his unit was ambushed in Kunar province’s Sarkani district. The controversial battle sparked national outcry when it was learned U.S. forces on the ground were repeatedly denied air and artillery support they had requested. Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor in September 2011 for heroism in the same battle.
“It’s a monumental event for me, for my family and for my teammates,” Swenson said in an Army news release published Monday night. “This day also means lot to those I served with.”
Swenson, who left active duty in February 2011, will be the sixth living service member to receive the nation’s top valor award for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. He will receive the award Oct. 15 in a ceremony at the White House alongside his family, White House officials said.
The grueling six-hour battle is one of the most infamous of the war in Afghanistan. At least 50 well-entrenched insurgents in the mountainside village of Ganjgal ambushed a group of about 60 Afghan soldiers, 20 Afghan border police and 13 military trainers shortly after dawn as the group was on its way to meet village elders. The enemy fighters appeared to know they were coming, and launched a fierce barrage of small-arms and rocket fire.
Killed in the battle were Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. All were members of Meyer’s unit, Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan. A soldier working for Swenson, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, died the following month at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center due to medical complications after sustaining a gunshot wound to the neck and face in the battle.
The battle and its aftermath have both been filled with frustration. Swenson, Meyer and the family members of the fallen all have criticized commanders who were found to have abandoned the troops on the battlefield that day, and the military’s handling of the incident afterward.
Two Army officers who were at a nearby tactical operations center nearby later received letters of reprimand after they were cited for “negligent leadership” that led “directly to the loss of life” on the battlefield, according to the investigation’s findings. It cited them for repeatedly refusing pleas for artillery support from U.S. forces on the ground, especially Swenson, and failing to notify higher commands that they had troops in trouble, the investigation found. They were with Task Force Chosin, an Army unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y.
What Swenson did
Swenson is credited with braving enemy fire repeatedly to help U.S. forces get out of a kill zone and in helping to find and recover the bodies of the four military advisers killed in the ambush.
U.S. forces left Forward Operating Base Joyce before dawn that morning to meet tribal leaders in Ganjgal, but as the lead element of the unit approached the village, the troops could see the lights in it flicker off. Moments later, they faced a hail of fire, and the four-man team of Marine trainers was quickly pinned down in the village with Afghan soldiers, according to military documents outlining the battle.
The team pleaded for fire support, but was denied because the officers at Joyce underestimated how bad the ambush was and were concerned about killing civilians or U.S. service members with artillery rounds. After the Marine team stopped responding to their radio, surviving U.S. forces reported them missing and began a frantic search to find them, uncertain whether they were dead.
Swenson and other U.S. forces were farther from the village, but still in the valley and facing heavy enemy fire. He began requesting fire support shortly after the shooting started, but after a few early artillery shells were dropped, he and other troops on the ground were denied additional support, the investigation found.
Pinned down on a hillside with several wounded comrades, Swenson and a Marine officer, then-1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo, defended the group from advancing enemy forces, who dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms and helmets, according to military documents. Swenson killed at least two of them with a grenade at close range, while Fabayo engaged them with his M4 carbine.
Fabayo and Swenson also worked together to evacuate more casualties under fire in an unarmored Ford Ranger pickup truck used by Afghan forces, and cared for service members who were wounded in the battle, including Westbrook. Then-Cpl. Meyer, meanwhile, worked with another Marine, then-Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, to free other Afghan forces from the kill zone.
On a last push into the village, Swenson hopped in a Humvee with Rodriguez-Chavez, Fabayo, Meyer and an Afghan interpreter. Rodriguez-Chavez drove, Fabayo manned a 7.62mm M240 machine gun turret, and Meyer sat in the back with the interpreter.
Meyer hopped out of the vehicle close to the village and found the missing troops shot to death and stripped of their radios and weapons in a hillside trench that had been marked with a smoke canister tossed from a helicopter. The gunfire was too fierce for the Air Force’s elite pararescue jumpers to help, but Meyer and Swenson faced it to load the bodies, the investigation found.
Interviewed after the incident, Swenson unloaded on the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers 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.”
The five families who lost loved ones because of the Ganjgal ambush learned about the approval of Swenson’s award late last week and over the weekend, and have been told they will be invited to the ceremony, said Susan Price, the mother of Kenefick, one of the Marines killed in the ambush.
“We intend to honor him for his sacrifice and all that he went through in the battle,” said Price, whose son was posthumously promoted to gunnery sergeant. “We’re just so happy. This is a joyous occasion.”
Meyer, who has argued repeatedly that Swenson deserved the award, said Monday he was happy to hear the decision.
“It’s great that the Army finally got through the process and made the right decision to award him the medal,” Meyer said Monday in a phone interview. “It’s something we all fought long and hard for.”
Left unexplained thus far is how Swenson’s initial nomination was lost in Afghanistan. Army officials said in 2011 that the captain was initially put up for the award shortly after the battle, only to see the paperwork get lost in bureaucracy. He was put up for it again when Marine Gen. John Allen, then the top commander in Afghanistan, took interest in the case shortly before Meyer received his award.
Swenson is said to be an intensely private individual who nevertheless has gone above and beyond to honor the memory of the men who died because of the ambush. In April, he traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., as the Army posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for combat valor, to Westbrook. Charlene Westbrook, the fallen soldier’s widow, credited Swenson with making sure that Westbrook’s heroism was recognized.
Westbrook’s wife said Monday that she always had hope the award would be approved. She had not talked to Swenson since the White House announcement. “It’s awesome news,” she said.
Fabayo, now a captain, and Rodriguez-Chavez, now a gunnery sergeant, received the Navy Cross in 2011 for their heroism in Ganjgal. It’s second only to the Medal of Honor in recognizing combat valor.
At least eight other U.S. service members in the battle have received Bronze Stars with V device for heroism that day.
Only one other battle in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to two service members receiving the Medal of Honor for actions the same day. Former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha and Staff Sgt. Ty Carter both received the award for valor in defending Combat Outpost Keating in eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009. The two battles took place about a month apart.