But for Swenson, the award stands for more than his personal bravery during the seven-hour battle in the Ganjgal valley, near the Pakistan border, on Sept. 8, 2009. It is also a measure of vindication.
After returning from the battlefield, Swenson engaged in a lengthy and bitter dispute with the military over the narrative of one of the Afghan war’s most notorious firefights.
The questions he raised resulted in reprimands for two other officers and what he and others say was an effort by the Army to discredit him. His account also cast doubt on the exploits of another Medal of Honor recipient from the same battle, Dakota Meyer of the Marine Corps.
United in war, the two men have taken far different paths since. Meyer has found celebrity and success, with a book and a personal assistant, boosted by a story that Swenson considers an inflated and misleading account of that harrowing day.
Swenson — the first Army officer since the Vietnam War to be awarded the medal — has been unemployed since leaving the service in 2011. He is single and lives in Seattle, growing a thick beard and long hair, in contrast to the clean-cut look of his military days, and escaping often to the mountains to find solitude in “my forced early retirement.”
“Are you familiar with Pyrrhic victories?” Swenson said in a recent interview. “That’s what I specialize in.”
Ganjgal remains one of the costliest battles of the 12-year Afghan conflict. In addition to the five U.S. deaths, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter were killed, while more than two dozen coalition troops were injured.
The troops were part of a coalition task force that set out that morning to meet with village elders, a mission designed to “separate the isolated mountain communities from insurgents,” according to the Army. Shortly after making their way over the rocky terrain and descending into the valley, however, they came under heavy fire from 60 well-armed Taliban fighters who sneaked into the area overnight.
Overmatched and quickly separated from one another, the coalition troops fought for hours as insurgents rained down gunfire in the U-shaped mountain pass.
Some of the chaos was captured in a short video, recorded on the helmet cameras of two pilots of a medical evacuation helicopter, that shows Swenson helping Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who was wounded, into the chopper. In the video, Swenson can be seen pausing to kiss his battlefield adviser on the forehead before returning to the fight.
Westbrook, a married father of three, survived for a month before dying at a U.S. hospital of complications from blood transfusions.