WASHINGTON (AP) — Four years after risking his life in Afghanistan, William D. Swenson solemnly received the Medal of Honor on Tuesday in a case of battlefield bravery with some odd twists: The young Army captain questioned the judgment of his superiors, and the paperwork nominating him for the award was lost. He left the military two years ago but wants to return to active duty, a rare move for a medal recipient.
The nation’s highest military honor — a sky blue ribbon and medal — was clasped around Swenson’s neck by President Barack Obama at the White House. The president described how Swenson repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover fallen comrades and help save others during a battle against Taliban insurgents in the Ganjgal valley near the Pakistan border on Sept. 8, 2009. The fight claimed five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter.
Swenson is the second Medal of Honor recipient from that fight, just the second time in half a century that the medal has been awarded to two survivors of the same battle, Obama said. Two years ago, Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer for heroic actions in the 2009 fight.
Obama noted that although America’s highest military honor has been bestowed nearly 3,500 times, never before had the public been able to see any of the bravery it was designed to recognize. Video taken by the medevac crew’s helmet cameras shows Swenson delivering a severely wounded soldier to the helicopter and kissing him on the head before returning to the heat of battle.
“A simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms,” Obama said at the East Room ceremony attended by Swenson’s parents, Julia and Carl, along with Vice President Joe Biden, first lady Michelle Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others.
Swenson also invited some of the Army soldiers and Marines who fought alongside him, and survivors of the five Americans.
Swenson, 34, of Seattle has been unemployed since leaving the military in February 2011. He has requested to return to active duty, rare for a Medal of Honor recipient, and his request is being reviewed, Army spokesman George Wright said.
A sober Swenson said the medal didn’t belong to him alone. “This award was earned with a team, a team of our finest. This medal represents them. It represents us,” he said in a brief statement afterward. He declined to answer questions.
Swenson was a trainer and adviser embedded with the Afghan Border Police Mentor Team in support of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division when dozens of Taliban insurgents ambushed him and his team that September morning as they headed on foot to meet with village elders in rural Ganjgal in Kunar Province in northeastern Afghanistan.
Under a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and mortar and machine-gun fire, Swenson returned fire before risking his life to help evacuate a wounded comrade, Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M. Westbrook later died from his wounds.
Swenson then made several trips to pick up injured Afghan soldiers and the fallen Americans, first by driving an unarmored Ford Ranger truck into battle and then grabbing a Humvee when the pickup gave out. He finally climbed into a second Humvee with a crew that included Meyer to retrieve the other fallen Americans.
Obama said Swenson is a “pretty low key guy” who would prefer a Pacific Northwest mountain trail surrounded by cedar trees to White House pomp. But, perhaps alluding to the partisan budget dispute gripping Washington, he said: “I think our nation needs this ceremony today.”
Swenson complained to military leaders after the fight that many of his calls for help were rejected by superior officers. After an investigation, two Army officers were reprimanded for being “inadequate and ineffective” and for “contributing directly to the loss of life.”
Swenson was first nominated for the award in 2009 but the paperwork was lost. It was resubmitted in 2011.
Swenson is the sixth living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the first army officer so decorated since the Vietnam War, the Army said. Swenson’s previous military honors include a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal.