Toward the end of the battle, Swenson and Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo made two trips into the kill zone to rescue Afghan troops. Then they joined Meyer and Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who had been making separate rescue missions, to recover the bodies of three Marines, a Navy corpsman and their Afghan interpreter, who were found in a deep trench. (Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez were awarded the Navy Cross.)
In an interview with superiors several days later, Swenson lashed out at the military’s rules of engagement, which had been tightened by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in an effort to limit civilian casualties. Swenson demanded to know why many of his radio calls for air cover and artillery support were rejected by his superiors. He asked why he was “being second-guessed by [higher-ups] or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned” office. “Why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” he said, according to an account by the Military Times. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo.”
The Battle of Ganjgal remains one of the deadliest in the Afghan war. Yet William Swenson, a former captain in the U.S. Army, managed to help fend off an onslaught of insurgents, saved lives, coordinated a rescue, and braved gunfire to retrieve fallen soldiers. This is his story.
Calling him "the soldier who went back in," President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to former Army captain William Swenson for his bravery during the Battle of Ganjgal, one of the deadliest battles in the Afghan war.
An Army investigation, finalized 11
2 years later, resulted in severe reprimands of two officers who were in charge at the forward operating base that fielded Swenson’s calls for help.
War correspondent Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, who was embedded with the coalition troops, has written extensively about the battle. He called Swenson “one of the most upstanding and moral men I have met in my life, someone who believes in what he’s doing. He believes in the regulations, in accountability. He’s unwilling to accept the go-along, get-along.”
But it was Meyer who gained the most attention and acclaim — a 21-year-old from Kentucky who reportedly disregarded orders and rushed into the battle from a rear position after listening to the ambush on the radio.
On Sept. 14, 2011, Meyer visited the White House to have a beer with Obama. The next day he appeared in the East Room, where the president draped the Medal of Honor around his neck. He was the first living Marine to win the award in 38 years. Obama hailed Meyer for helping save 13 Americans and 23 Afghans in a feat that “will be told for generations.”
Others were not convinced. Three months later, Landay published an exhaustive investigation, based on internal military documents and interviews with Afghan troops, that alleged the official narrative that supported Meyer’s award inflated the number of Americans he rescued and how many insurgents he killed.
Landay reported that 11 U.S. troops were on the battlefield and that four died that day. In his account, it was Swenson who led the final mission to retrieve the bodies of the four dead Americans, with Meyer in the back seat of the Humvee. Landay emphasized that Meyer also performed heroically and that his fellow troops thought he deserved the medal, despite the contradictions.
The Marine Corps and Meyer have disputed Landay’s findings. Asked to comment, Meyer said through a spokeswoman: “I am very proud of Captain Swenson. He received the medal he deserves. . . . My family and I will continue to have everyone who lost their lives that day in our thoughts and prayers.”