Former Army Capt. William Swenson receives Medal of Honor at White House

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. (The Washington Post)

It was a tender moment that demonstrated the brotherhood of the U.S. servicemen who fought for their lives in a remote Afghanistan province four years ago. In the heat of battle, Army Capt. William Swenson leaned in and kissed the head of a severely wounded comrade while loading him into an evacuation helicopter.

On Tuesday, President Obama cited that moment — captured in a video taken by a medevac crewman — as he presented Swenson, 34, with the Medal of Honor for heroic service in the Ganjgal valley in eastern Afghanistan. Swenson, who has since left the military, is credited with risking his life to help save other U.S. troops and Afghan allies and retrieve the bodies of four Americans who were killed Sept. 8, 2009.

“Amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he does something unexpected. He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head — a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms,” Obama said of Swenson during a ceremony attended by 250 guests, including Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, first lady Michelle Obama and several previous medal recipients.

Obama said that the nation has awarded the Medal of Honor, its highest military decoration, nearly 3,500 times, and that the video of Swenson “may be the first time that we can actually bear witness to a small fraction of those actions for ourselves.”

Swenson, who lives in Seattle, did not speak during the White House ceremony. Afterward, an Army spokesman confirmed that Swenson had asked to return to active duty more than two years after he left the service. “We are currently reviewing his request and processing it within established policy,” said the spokesman, George Wright. Swenson would have to undergo a routine drug test and background check.

A return to active service would be a remarkable turnabout.

Swenson’s path to the White House ceremony was a rocky one . After he criticized his Army superiors, saying they failed to provide enough air and artillery support during the 2009 engagement, his medal nomination was delayed for years. Amy officials said his nomination packet was lost in a computer system for 19 months.

Swenson became the second service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor for the Ganjgal battle. The other recipient, former Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who accepted the award in 2011, was not in attendance Tuesday. Swenson has expressed skepticism about the accuracy of Meyer’s account of the battle.

Two other Marines — Ademola Fabayo and Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who helped Swenson and Meyer in the rescue effort — attended Tuesday’s ceremony. They both have received the Navy Cross for their actions.

During an interview with The Washington Post, Swenson said he would accept the medal to honor fellow soldiers and Marines and the 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.

In the interview, he said he had no memory of kissing the head of Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who had been shot in the cheek and shoulder, until he saw the video this year.“You could have told me it happened, and I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said. “But it did, and it was captured on film. And it offered a glimpse of the humanity that does occur on battlefields.”

Westbrook, the father of three, died about a month after the battle of complications from a blood transfusion. His wife, Charlene Westbrook, was in the audience at the White House on Tuesday. “Charlene will always be grateful for the final days she was able to spend with her husband,” Obama said.

Swenson and Westbrook had been working for a year as embedded trainers with the Afghan Border Police in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. They were trying to prepare the Afghan forces to patrol remote tribal areas often teeming with insurgents and beyond the control of the Afghan national government.

On the day of the battle, about 11 U.S. trainers and 80 Afghan troops set out to meet with town elders. As soon as they reached the valley, they were ambushed by Taliban fighters hidden on the higher terrain that ringed the valley on three sides. Five Americans, 10 Afghan troops and an Afghan interpreter were slain.

Looking back on his last moments with Westbrook, Swenson said of the video: “To see him and to see me in that situation gives me comfort. . . . 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.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
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