With William Swenson, the Army gained a Medal of Honor but lost a leader

October 15, 2013

U.S. Army Capt. William Swenson, of Seattle, Washington, calls for air support on his radio as they take cover after Afghan security forces and their U.S. military trainers were ambushed on September 8, 2009. (Jonathan S. Landay/MCT)

UPDATE: The Associated Press is reporting that William Swenson, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony Tuesday afternoon, has asked to return to active duty. Two U.S. officials told the wire service that Swenson has submitted a formal request and that he could rise to the rank of major if he rejoins the Army after passing routine tests.

When Ret. Army Captain William Swenson was finally recognized at the White House Tuesday afternoon for his courageous actions in Afghanistan, the most obvious controversy may be that it took four years to happen.

Swenson, who became the first Army officer to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, received the award for the role he played in the deadly Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan in 2009. He repeatedly braved enemy fire to save his fellow soldiers, rescue Afghan troops and retrieve the bodies of dead Americans. But after he spoke out publicly against the leaders who failed to send in enough air and artillery support, some have questioned whether the award became politicized, causing the delay. (The Army has said the nomination packet was lost, and that award procedures were not violated.)

But the slow process of recognizing Swenson's valor isn't the only tragedy of this story. That the Army managed to lose such a hero from its ranks speaks volumes about how this country is failing to marshall and efficiently use one of our scarcest resources: real leaders.

Journalist Jonathan Landay, who was also on the ground during the Ganjgal battle and who has written extensively about it, called Swenson "one of the most upstanding and moral men I have met in my life." And in a Sunday feature in the Washington Post, David Nakamura interviewed Swenson and reports that he lives in Seattle, has been unemployed since leaving the service in 2011, and often heads to the mountains to be by himself in "my forced early retirement." Other reports have said Swenson "quietly resigned" from the Army in Feb. 2011.

Given the way the Army is alleged to have handled his nomination for the award, it's understandable Swenson is no longer with the military. Yes, Swenson should have already been recognized for his extraordinary valor. For that matter, the Army should have showered him with awards. But such awards, even such prestigious ones, are just the start.

People with Swenson's moral fabric and leadership capability should not only be employed, they should be courted by the organizations they work for in order to retain them—from awards commending their courage and high-level mentorship,  to exceptional promotion opportunities and the flexibility to chart whatever career path they choose. While I don't know what Swenson himself was or wasn't offered, the military generally fails at retention, writes former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer Tim Kane in his recent book, "Bleeding Talent." A bureaucracy that "is nearly blind to merit," as he writes, is excellent at attracting great talent but is "doing everything wrong" at keeping them.

People who have demonstrated the tremendous courage, selflessness when it comes to protect one's team, and willingness to speak out against authority are exactly what we look for in our future leaders. We can only hope that Swenson's Medal of Honor is not the last we hear of him.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The Medal of Honor, and what "leadership" really means

How to lose great leaders? Ask the Army

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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