Captain William D. Swenson Awarded Medal of Honor At White House — Videos
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Segment 0: Captain William D. Swenson Awarded Medal of Honor At White House — Videos
Extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty
By Raymond Thomas Pronk
In a ceremony at the White House on Oct. 15, President Barack Obama awarded Captain William D. Swenson the nation’s highest military honor for valor, the Medal of Honor.
Captain Swenson was assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, as an adviser to the Afghan Border Police Mentor Team on Sept.8, 2009, when both Afghan soldiers and their American military trainers were ambushed near the village of Ganjgal in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, by more than 50 Taliban fighters.
The official citation for the award reads in part: “Surrounded on three sides by enemy forces inflicting effective and accurate fire, Captain Swenson coordinated air assets, indirect fire support and medical evacuation helicopter support to allow for the evacuation of the wounded. Captain Swenson ignored enemy radio transmissions demanding surrender and maneuvered uncovered to render medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier. Captain Swenson stopped administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at approaching enemy forces, before assisting with moving the soldier for air evacuation.”
“With complete disregard for his own safety, Captain Swenson unhesitatingly led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions, to recover the wounded and search for four missing comrades. After using aviation support to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades, it became clear that ground recovery of the fallen was required due to heavy enemy fire on helicopter landing zones. Captain Swenson’s team returned to the kill zone another time in a Humvee. Captain Swenson voluntarily exited the vehicle, exposing himself to enemy fire, to locate and recover three fallen Marines and one fallen Navy corpsman.”
Swenson is the sixth living person awarded the Medal Honor for valor in the Iraq and Afghanistan war, according to the Defense Department.
Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor by Obama in 2011 for rescuing troops that same day and recovering the remains of four Americans killed in the battle of Ganjgal and served beside Captain Swenson. Meyer in his book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War” said he would not be alive today if it was not for the actions of Captain Swenson and advocated that Swenson should receive the Medal of Honor.
Swenson was outspoken and critical of his superiors for not receiving timely air and artillery support. An investigation subsequently led to three Army officers being reprimanded. Swenson’s Medal of Honor was delayed when the paperwork for the award was lost.
Captain Swenson helped rescue and deliver to the medevac helicopter Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M. who later died from complications from his wounds in the United States. This small part of the battle was captured in a video on YouTube titled “Army Capt. William Swenson Receives Medal of Honor.”
Gone but not forgotten are the four Americans killed in the ambush: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25, of Virginia Beach, Staff Sgt. Aaron Keneflick, 30 of Roswell, Ga., Corpsman James Layton, 22 of Riverbank, Calif., and Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., 31, of Columbus, Ga. Also killed that day were 10 Afghan troops and an interpreter.
Swenson left the Army in February 2011 but has asked to return and is waiting for a decision by the Army.
After the ceremony Swenson standing in front of the West Wing, said, “Today, I stand with the Medal of Honor…but this award is earned with a team, a team of our finest, Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and our Afghan partners, standing side by side. This medal represents them, represents us.”
Obama bestows Medal of Honor on former Army captain for actions during Afghanistan firefight
By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
WASHINGTON — A former Army captain whose heroic actions in a deadly Afghan battle were captured on video received the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, from President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday.
Obama placed the award around the neck of William D. Swenson for his actions in a lengthy battle against the Taliban in the Ganjgal valley near the Pakistan border four years ago, which claimed the lives of five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter.
Obama noted that although the honor has been bestowed nearly 3,500 times in U.S. history, never before had Americans been able to witness of a small part of the bravery that led to it. The video captured from cameras mounted on the helmets of evacuation helicopter pilots showed Swenson delivering a severely wounded soldier to the helicopter and placing a kiss on his head as he placed him inside.
Swenson, 34, retired from the military in February 2011 and has been living in Seattle. But two U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Swenson has asked to return to active duty, and the Army is working to allow it.
Swenson was serving as a trainer and mentor embedded with the Afghan National Security Forces in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan when they came under fire near dawn on Sept. 8, 2009. Obama recounted how Swenson dodged enemy fire, without a helmet, and risked his life to recover bodies and help save fellow troops. “Will Swenson was there for his brothers,” Obama said.
The president called Swenson a “pretty low key guy,” who would rather be on a Pacific Northwest mountain trail surrounded by cedar trees instead of in front of the cameras at the White House. But Obama, perhaps thinking of the current partisan budget dispute gripping Washington, said, “I think our nation needs this ceremony today.”
“In moments like this, Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best, a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard — maybe especially when it’s hard,” Obama said. “And, Will, you’re an example to everyone in this city and to our whole country of the professionalism and patriotism that we should strive for, whether we wear a uniform or not, not just on particular occasions but all the time.”
After the Ganjgal battle, Swenson complained to military leaders after the fight that many of his calls for help were rejected by superior officers. Two Army officers were reprimanded for being “inadequate and ineffective” and for “contributing directly to the loss of life” following an investigation into the day’s events.
Four Americans died in the ambush: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Georgia; Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, California; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., a 31-year-old gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Georgia Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, New Mexico, who Swenson delivered to the helicopter with a kiss, later died from his wounds.
The military says Swenson’s initial medal nomination was lost. Another man who fought in the battle, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011.
Swenson is the sixth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama also attended Tuesday’s medal ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
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Former Army Capt. William Swenson to receive Medal of Honor at White House
It was a tender moment that demonstrates the brotherhood of the U.S. servicemen who fought for their lives in a remote Afghanistan province four years ago. But former Army Capt. William Swenson said he does not recall the brief kiss he laid on the head of his severely wounded partner that day.
The video, recorded on the shaky helmet camera of a Medevac crewman, captured the kiss without the soldiers’ knowledge. There is Swenson, helping Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook into the rescue helicopter, two hours into a firefight against heavily armed Taliban insurgents in the Ganjgal valley and after Westbrook was shot through the mouth and shoulder. Wearing wrap-around sunglasses but no helmet, Swenson kisses the top of Westbrook’s head and pats him on the shoulder before returning to the battle.
Swenson, 34, of Seattle, is credited with risking his life to help save his comrades and Afghan allies and retrieve the bodies of four Americans who were killed during the seven-hour battle on Sept. 8, 2009. He will accept the Medal of Honor from President Obama before 250 guests at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, the first Army officer to receive the U.S. military’s highest valor award since the Vietnam war.
“You could have told me it happened, and I wouldn’t have believed you,” Swenson said in one of his first extended interviews since the battle. “But it did, and it was captured on film. And it offered a glimpse of the humanity that does occur on battlefields.”
Swenson’s path to the White House ceremony has been a rocky one, as The Washington Post reported Sunday. After he criticized his Army superiors for failing to provide enough air and artillery support, his award nomination was delayed for years. At times, it seemed like he would never receive it.
During the interview with the Post, Swenson said he would accept the medal in honor of the fellow soldiers and Marines with whom he fought, many of whom will be at the ceremony, along with family members of those who died.
“It does not really belong to me, it belongs to that event and the people I stood with,” he said of the medal. “I’ll be thinking of everyone in that valley who gave more than could be expected of anybody.”
Westbrook, a married father of three, survived for a month after leaving the battlefield on the helicopter, but he died at a U.S. hospital of complications from a blood transfusion. His widow, Charlene Westbrook, will be at the White House on Tuesday.
‘Alright, buddy, hang on’
Swenson and Westbrook had been working for a year as trainers with the Afghan Border Police in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. They were trying to help prepare the Afghan forces to oversee remote tribal areas that were often teeming with insurgents and not aligned with the Afghanistan national government.
On the day of the battle, a group of about 11 U.S. trainers and 80 Afghan troops set out to meet with the town elders. As soon as they reached the valley, they were ambushed by Taliban fighters who had hidden in the higher mountain terrain that ringed the valley on three sides. In all, five Americans and 10 Afghan troops, along with an Afghan translator, were slain.
Swenson never saw Kenneth Westbrook again after helping him into the helicopter. He said Westbrook, who had served 22 years in the Army and was planning to retire soon, was shot in the neck while attempting to return fire on Taliban targets as a group of U.S. and Afghan troops was trying to retreat to safety.
“He called out and said, ‘Will, I’m hit.’ It was very matter-of-fact,” Swenson recalled. “I yelled back to him, ‘Alright, buddy, hang on, I can’t get to you.’ I was pinned down. He continued fighting and some time passed until it was getting serious, and we did not know how much longer he could hold on.”
When the rescue helicopter arrived, Swenson said, Westbrook “was beginning to lose consciousness. He had made a hundreds of meters dash. He was bleeding, and the wounds were significant. He had made a heroic effort but was finally giving out.”
At the final rock terrace, as Swenson and others tried to assist him into the helicopter, Westbrook “realizes he needs one more burst of energy, and he gets up on his feet and walks onto the helicopter — on his own two feet.”
Swenson received a copy of the video from the medevac crew, and he passed on a copy to Charlene Westbrook earlier this year. In an interview, she said Swenson had called her from Afghanistan while she was waiting in the hospital during her husband’s recovery.
Kenneth had just been taken from the surgical unit to the rehabilitation unit, she remembers telling Swenson, so he was not available to talk. Swenson asked how she was doing and then promised to call back. But Kenneth died unexpectedly soon after.
Looking back on their last moments together on that video, Swenson said: “To see him and to see me in that situation gives me comfort to see him walk off the battlefield. . . . I would trade anything for that not to be our last moment, but that was our last moment and I’ll always have that now.”
MEDAL OF HONOR WINNER ASKS TO RETURN TO DUTY
By LOLITA BALDOR
The former Army captain who received the Medal of Honor on Tuesday has asked to return to active duty in the Army, a rare move by an officer who has lived to wear the military’s highest award.
Two U.S. officials tell The Associated Press that William D. Swenson has submitted a formal request to the Army and officials are working with him to allow his return.
Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in the White House Tuesday afternoon for risking his life to recover bodies and save fellow troops during a lengthy battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border in 2009.
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the request until a decision was made.
Swenson, 34, left the military in February 2011 as a captain, but he could rise to the rank of major once he rejoins. In order to successfully re-enlist, Swenson will have to pass a physical, a drug test and other routine reviews. But officials Tuesday were optimistic it would all fall into place.
In the aftermath of 9/11, when the Army was growing in size to meet the combat requirements of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it was not unusual for former soldiers to rejoin the service and go back on active duty. It is rare, if not unprecedented, for an officer holding the Medal of Honor, to do so. Officials were unsure if that had ever happened before.
Swenson also has a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal and lives in Seattle.