President Obama presents retired Army Capt. Will Swenson with the Medal of Honor at the White House on Oct. 15, 2013. Swenson received the medal for his actions in the 2009 Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan. Swenson has since returned to active duty. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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When Army Capt. William Swenson received the Medal of Honor last year — the first living officer to earn one since Vietnam — he received more than the traditional accolades.
He also got an apology.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered the highly unusual mea culpa at the official Pentagon Hall of Hero’s induction ceremony Oct. 16. Speaking directly to Swenson, Hagel said: “We’re sorry you and your family had to endure through that.”
That was a reference to Swenson’s botched nomination packet, which got lost within U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan amid a whirlwind of politics, controversy and scandalous intrigue.
The details of how Swenson’s packet got lost were detailed for the first time in a Defense Department Inspector General report released to Military Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
The original packet was last seen after it left now-retired Army Gen. David Petraeus’ desk, when the powerful four-star commander recommended that the honor be downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, according the IG.
Controversy over air strikes
Why Petraeus made that recommendation is unclear; he told IG investigators that he had no recollection of Swenson’s nomination package. However, the IG concluded that other evidence “outweighed Gen. Petraeus’ testimony” and that he had, in fact, endorsed the packet with a downgrade.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Petraeus told Military Times that his hazy memory is not surprising in light of his overwhelming job as commanding general in Afghanistan. He noted that the Medal of Honor packet came to his desk just several weeks after he took command in Kabul, when the war effort was in a critical phase.
“I just don’t have any recollection of it,” Petraeus said. “I had tons of things going on. You have stuff coming across your desk all day, every day. I know when everyone isolates their attention on this and they can say ‘How could you not remember that?’ Well, we had some pretty big, big fish in the fryer in those days.”
While Petraeus’ memory may have been fuzzy, he acknowledged to the IG that he knew about Swenson and the controversy the young captain helped fuel.
Swenson criticized Army commanders for denying a request for airstrikes Sept. 8, 2009, when his unit was ambushed and Swenson repeatedly ran in and out of a kill zone to retrieve fellow soldiers, both wounded and dead.
Petraeus told IG investigators that Swenson’s criticisms reflected a broader problem of how approval for close-air support for ground-level troops under fire “had become overly bureaucratic.”
Concerns about Afghan civilian casualties were weighed against supporting troops in danger, which Petraeus described as a “very, very tough issue,” according to the IG.
Swenson’s MOH packet hit Petraeus’ desk July 27, 2010, according to the IG, a time when the U.S. headquarters in Kabul was focused on the controversy surrounding the use of airstrikes.
About one week later, on Aug. 4, Petraeus announced a new “tactical directive” regarding airstrikes. Ground troops welcomed the change and perceived the new directive as a shift away from the unpopular rules of engagement that had prioritized protecting civilians at the expense of troops’ safety.
About that same time, Swenson’s nomination package got lost for more than a year because after the packet left Petraeus’ desk, his headquarters staff failed to forward it to U.S. Central Command and Army Human Resources Command, according to the IG.
Swenson told the IG that he made some “powerful enemies” in the Army after he criticized the higher-ups for denying his request for fire support during Afghanistan’s Battle of Ganjgal, for which he was ultimately honored with the nation’s highest valor medal. He said he believed his initial Medal of Honor nomination was deliberately derailed in retaliation for his criticisms.
About one year after the packet was last seen on Petraeus’ desk, Army officials began asking questions about the status of the nomination and initially could not find any record of the packet in the service’s computer systems.
In July 2011, Army officials in Afghanistan’s Regional Command East “found the packet on the portal” and refiled the nomination for an MOH, according to the IG report.
But Swenson declared that the Army’s investigation into the matter was flawed and said he would not accept any award until his concerns about senior official misconduct were resolved.
In November 2011, he sent a letter to Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., saying he would accept no award “unless an effort was made to restore the integrity of the Medal [of Honor] and hold those accountable who attempted to bring shame upon it,” according to the IG report.
Concerns on Capitol Hill helped spark the DoD IG investigation, which was finalized last October but withheld for nearly six months following the FOIA request from Military Times.
The IG’s investigation essentially contradicts the Kabul headquarters’ own internal probe by concluding that Swenson’s package was last seen at Petraeus’ headquarters in Kabul, not the task force-level headquarters in eastern Afghanistan.
Even so, the IG found “there was no evidence that a senior official mishandled, lost, destroyed, purged, disposed of, or unnecessarily delayed the recommendation.”
But critics on Capitol Hill still have questions about Petraeus’ role in the matter.
“Petraeus’ statements seem to suggest that MoH nominations were flying off his desk, too many to count. But that’s nonsense,” said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served as a Marine in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Petraeus told Military Times unequivocally that there was no link between Swenson’s criticisms and the botched MOH packet.
“I think folks have, you know, made a bit of a conspiracy out of this. They are developing a conspiracy theory that is just not warranted,” Petraeus said.
In hindsight, the summer of 2010 was a critical time for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Troop levels were rising and the U.S. military had renewed its commitment to the war effort that for years had been overshadowed by Iraq.
Petraeus assumed command unexpectedly after his predecessor, now-retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was summarily fired in June 2010 after he was quoted in a magazine article criticizing and insulting civilian colleagues and White House officials.
“I had some petty consuming jobs in those periods and [the Medal of Honor packet] was not a big area of focus for me, to put it mildly,” Petraeus said.