Today there was an addition to the illustrious roll of Medal of Honor awardees. It took way too long to put him on there.
Before I delve into the politics of CPT Swenson’s Medal of Honor, I want to honor his incredible acts.
CPT Swenson was on an embedded training team advising Afghan Border Police on 8 Sep 2008, when his 65-man unit, which included Afghan Border Police and a Marine advisor team, were caught in an ambush by an estimated 150 insurgents near the village of Ganjgal.
CPT Swenson moved to the sound of the guns in his Ford Ranger pickup truck, linking up with the Marine command element whose commander was shot in the arm and whose 1SGT already had ruptured eardrums from an RPG. CPT Swenson took command and repeatedly requested artillery fire, which was denied because of the close proximity to the village where women and children were observed shuttling ammunition to the insurgents. Eventually white phosphorous was fired 400M from his position which wasn’t near enough to provide concealment to the engaged troops. Realizing the enemy had fire superiority and was on the verge of overrunning the forward element, a painful decision was made to withdraw, reorganize and then rescue three Marines and a Corpsman at the front of the column with whom contact had been lost.
As the unit was withdrawing, SFC Westbrook, CPT Swenson’s NCOIC, was separated and wounded in an open field. CPT Swenson, along with LT Fabayo and 1SGT Garza, zig-zagged through 50m of open space to get to Westbrook, who had suffered a chest wound. Meanwhile, the enemy had maneuvered through village buildings to within 50m of the Americans. An insurgent wearing a helmet, fatigues and body armor motioned to Fabayo to surrender, who communicated that to CPT Swenson. CPT Swenson put down his radio, stopped rendering first aid and threw a hand grenade rendering his answer.
Following CPT Swenson’s example, Afghan troops pushed the enemy away as Kiowa scout helicopters arrived. The break allowed CPT Swenson and those with him to evacuate Westbrook and other casualties to a nearby LZ, where a Medevac landed for the casualties. CPT Swenson was captured on video evacuating the casualties and kissing SFC Westbrook’s head before returning to the fight.
Swenson and Fabyo then reentered the kill zone twice to retrieve casualties in an unarmored Ford Ranger. Simultaneously, Marines, including future Medal of Honor awardee Dakota Meyer, were doing the same. Swenson continuously maintained contact with one of the Kiowas trying to locate the missing Marines and Corpsman.
It became clear they needed to enter the village. CPT Swenson organized the force while calling in a USAF CSAR helicopter that located the lifeless Americans near a courtyard in a tench stripped of their, equipment, weapons, body armor and clothing. The CSAR attempted to land but was driven off by RPG fire. At that point, CPT Swenson led two up-armored HMMWVs into the village, supported by fires from Kiowas and the CSAR helicopter. CPT Swenson and Dakota Meyer, along with Afghan, troops recovered the bodies under fire while the two HMMWVs provided covering fire. The battle raged for hours more.
Five Americans, including SFC Westbrook, as well as eight Afghan soldiers, died from wounds received in the battle. CPT Swenson was highly critical of the ROE that prohibited close fires. He later said, “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?” and “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,” according to redacted documents reported by Army Times.
Several officers were subsequently disciplined, including two at the battalion level, receiving letters of reprimand citing “negligent leadership” leading “directly to the loss of life.” No significant action was taken at the higher levels who communicated the now infamous ROE, and who allegedly were slow to direct CAS to the unit in contact.
CPT Swenson’s initial MOH recommendation was “lost” for 19 months, but resubmitted shortly before Sgt Dakota Meyer’s award ceremony by Gen Allen. Gen Petraeus said he couldn’t remember the packet, but he signed it 28 July 2010. There also seemed to be an effort to downgrade his MOH recommendation (MOH recommendations cannot be downgraded except by the awarding committee). An Army investigation determined there was no indication of criminal behavior. Curious…
CPT Swenson left the service in 2011. He was quoted in a recent interview as saying, “Are you familiar with Pyrrhic victories? That’s what I specialize in.” CPT Swenson has requested to return to active duty.
I hope the Army approves. We need more like him.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Peter Molin. Captain William Swenson. Photograph by Jonathan S. Landay/MCT)