Early one morning in September 2009, a routine mission through a valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, became a deadly battle against the Taliban. It might have been a total victory for the militants without the courageous actions of former U.S. Army Capt. William D. Swenson.
Today, the Seattle resident received the Medal of Honor, the United States' highest military award, from President Barack Obama. Swenson is the sixth living recipient to be awarded the medal for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“In moments like this, Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best, a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard—maybe especially when it’s hard,” Obama said.
Swenson was on his second tour in Afghanistan, and serving as an embedded advisor for Afghan Border Police, according to the Army News Service. He, a few other American soldiers, a U.S. Marine embedded training corps, and the Afghan officers were maneuvering toward the mountainside village of Ganjgal, where they planned to have tea with the village elders.
“We were not there to fight, we were there to have the Afghan forces prove to an unreceptive audience that the government was fair, professional, responsible, and most importantly, it was Afghan,” Swenson told the Army News.
Then without warning, lights went out in the village and the troops began taking heavy fire. Somehow, the Taliban had infiltrated the town and coerced the women and children to supply them with artillery.
In the chaotic fight that followed, the officers decided the Taliban had the upper hand and called for retreat. Swanson coordinated helicopter support, but could not get the artillery positioned.
“We were going to be overrun, so we started a controlled withdrawal, but it was not the decision we wanted to make because we still knew we had the Marines up ahead,” he said.
When Swenson learned that his fellow soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, lay in the open with a chest wound, he and two other officers went to his aid. When an insurgent stood up and demanded surrender, Swenson paused his first aid work and threw a hand grenade at him.
His bravery inspired the rest of the troops, who pushed the insurgents back until support arrived. Despite the rescue, Swenson complained after the fight that his superior officers repeatedly ignored his calls for help. After investigating the day’s events, the Army reprimanded two officers for being “inadequate and ineffective” and for “contributing directly to the loss of life.”
“There was loss, terrible loss, but we brought forces in to continue that mission, to finish that mission, to clear that village, and to show what our resolve was and what our response would be,” he said.
Five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops, and an interpreter died during the battle. Though Westbrook later died from wounds at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Bethesda, Md., his wife told the Army News that Swenson’s actions gave him more time with family.
Swenson, 34, retired from the military in 2011 but two U.S. officials said today he has asked to return to active duty. Swenson served three tours in the Middle East, and also holds a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.