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Hagel apologizes to Medal of Honor recipient for bungling of paperwork that delayed award

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel apologized to Medal of Honor recipient William Swenson on Wednesday for the Army’s mishandling of his award nomination, which had been delayed for 19 months because of what officials called a bureaucratic oversight.

“It was wrong; they corrected it; they fixed it,” Hagel said at the Pentagon, where Swenson was inducted into the Hall of Heroes a day after President Obama presented him with the nation’s highest military decoration. “We’re sorry you and your family had to endure through that.”

Swenson, 34, survived a seven-hour battle in the Ganjgal Valley in eastern Afghanistan in September 2009 that resulted in the deaths of five Americans. The deadly ambush by Taliban insurgents represents one of the most notorious battles in the 12-year war, but it also produced acts of heroism that have resulted in two Medals of Honor, two Navy Crosses and other valor awards.

Swenson, who was first nominated for the medal in 2009, waited nearly four years to learn that his nomination had been approved by the military and signed by Obama. An investigation into the Army’s handling of the award found that Swenson’s digital nomination packet had been lost in the computer system.

Army officials blamed high turnover among the personnel responsible for processing the award up the ranks. But Swenson’s associates said they believed he was being punished for having criticized his superiors for failing to provide troops with air cover and artillery support during much of the Ganjgal battle.

On Wednesday, officials praised Swenson’s character, and Army Secretary John McHugh said he had issued a new directive aimed at ensuring such mishandling of awards does not happen again. Among the changes, McHugh said, are requirements that all medal nominations be forwarded immediately to the human resources command, which will be charged with following up every 30 days.

McHugh compared Swenson to Leslie Sabo, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor last year for valor during the Vietnam War. Sabo’s nomination was lost by the Army until a reporter discovered his case while doing research and brought it to public attention, McHugh said.

Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno said Swenson had “the character to stick to his convictions.”

Swenson, who left the Army in 2011, has asked to be returned to active service, and the Army is reviewing the request. Dressed in his uniform and wearing the Medal of Honor around his neck, Swenson called that day fighting aside his fellow troops on the battlefield in Ganjgal “the proudest moment of my life.”

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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