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WASHINGTON — The insurgent ambush was well-planned and executed. About 60 Taliban fighters waited until the Americans and Afghan security forces got within small-arms range before opening fire with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and machine guns.
The Taliban held the high ground and the Americans and Afghan security forces, including army and border police, were trapped at the end of a narrow valley, facing the enemy on three sides.
An hour into the fight communication with the lead elements was lost. The number of injured was piling up and the enemy was maneuvering against the Afghans and Americans, making it difficult to use artillery without risking friendly casualties.
At one point in the chaos, Capt. William Swenson was coordinating helicopter support, returning fire on the enemy and treating a critically wounded comrade, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook. All the while the enemy was drawing closer, close enough, in fact, that an insurgent signaled at the Americans to surrender.
“Outnumbered, flanked and facing enemy capture, Swenson put down his radio and halted his treatment of Westbrook long enough to reply to the enemy’s demands for surrender,” according to an Army account of Swenson’s action. By way of reply he lobbed a grenade at the insurgent.
The fighting lasted for seven hours that September day in 2009 in Afghanistan’s Ganjgal valley. For his actions the former Army officer will be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery, from President Obama at the White House on Oct. 15.
It was a long time coming. At least one lawmaker has raised questions about the length of time it took for Swenson’s nomination to be approved. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Marine, says the Medal of Honor process has become politicized.
The medal should be awarded on the merits of what an individual did and not worries over what he might say or his image, said Hunter, a California Republican. Inevitably, Medal of Honor recipients become public figures and spokesmen for the military.
Hunter believes the military intentionally slow-rolled Swenson’s nomination, possibly because in private investigations into the Ganjgal battle Swenson expressed strong disatisfaction that repeated calls for close air support were denied, leaving the Afghan forces and their U.S. advisers to fight their way out of deadly ambush.
The Army later acknowledged that close air support was improperly denied. Two Army officers who were at the combat operations center when the calls came in received reprimands.
Three Marines, a Navy corpsman, an interpreter and about 10 Afghan security forces were killed in the valley that day. Westbrook was evacuated from the valley, but later died.
Swenson’s actions contributed to saving about a dozen Afghans, the Army account says. He repeatedly exposed himself to sustained and accurate enemy fire to help comrades.
It is not clear why it took so long for Swenson’s medal to be approved. Former Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who fought with Swenson that day, was awarded the medal two years ago.
At one point the nomination documents were “lost” within a headquarters in Afghanistan. The Defense Department inspector general’s office is investigating what happened. The Army said it would not comment on the process before the inspector general report is completed.
“It was emblematic of the entire fouled-up process,” Hunter has said of the apparent delays in getting the medal approved for Swenson.
The Army said Swenson, who is out of the Army now and lives in Seattle, has declined requests for interviews.
Swenson will be only the sixth living Medal of Honor winner from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It ends up being right in the end but it took four years and a lot of pressure exerted from different points …to get this rolled through,” Hunter said of Swenson’s award. “The Army wasn’t going to do this on its own.”