President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson in a White House ceremony Oct. 15, citing Swenson’s heroism during a six-hour battle that followed a deadly Taliban ambush in Afghanistan four years ago.
Swenson is the first Army officer to receive the nation’s highest military honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Guests at the White House ceremony included other Medal of Honor recipients, soldiers and Marines who fought alongside Swenson, and the families of service members who died in the battle. Army Secretary John M. McHugh, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Army Undersecretary Joseph W. Westphal also attended.
Before draping the medal around Swenson’s neck, Obama recounted Swenson’s heroic actions in saving more than a dozen lives during the Sept. 8, 2009, Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
Swenson is the second service member to receive the Medal of Honor for that battle. Dakota Meyer, a Marine Corps corporal at the time, was honored two years ago.
The president said Swenson is a remarkable example to the nation of the professionalism and patriotism that everyone should strive for.
“Capt. Will Swenson was a leader on that September morning,” Obama said. “But like all great leaders, he was also a servant — to the men he commanded, to the more than a dozen Afghans and Americans whose lives he saved, to the families of those who gave their last full measure of devotion on that faraway field.”
Swenson served with Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan’s Task Force Phoenix in support of 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, as an embedded advisor to the Afghan border police. He said the honor is for all who served that day and for the families of those who were killed in the battle.
“The value of an award is truly what we as a nation put into it, what we value it as,” he told reporters after receiving the award. “This award is earned with a team – a team of our finest Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and our Afghan partners standing side by side. Now that team includes Gold Star families who lost their fathers, sons and husbands that day. This medal represents them – it represents us.”
Around sunrise that day four years ago, Obama said, a column of Afghan soldiers and their American advisers were winding their way up a narrow trail toward a village to meet with elders. “But just as the first soldier reaches the outskirts of the village, all hell breaks loose,” he added.
The American forces and their Afghan partners were ambushed by more than 60 well-armed, well-positioned enemy fighters, the Medal of Honor citation said. Insurgents surrounded three Marines and a Navy corpsman, Obama said, and rocket-propelled grenades, mortar and machine-gun fire poured in from three sides.
“Will and the soldiers in the center of the column are pinned down,” he said. Swenson called in air support, Obama said, but initial requests were denied because Swenson and his team were too close to the village.
After finding out his noncommissioned officer, Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, was injured, Swenson risked his life to aid him.
“Will breaks across 50 meters of open space, bullets biting all around,” Obama said. “Lying on his back, he presses a bandage to Kenneth’s wounds with one hand and calls for a medevac with the other, trying to keep his buddy calm.”
Swenson continued to fight the enemy and risked his life getting Westbrook to the medevac, said Obama, noting that before the helicopter left, Swenson kissed Westbrook on the forehead in “a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms.”
Risking his own life again, Swenson then drove an unarmored vehicle straight into the kill zone to rescue injured Afghan forces, Obama said. He returned into the path of enemy fire again, when he and a Humvee crew recovered the four fallen service members.
“Will and the others carry them out, one by one,” Obama said. “They bring their fallen brothers home.”
Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class James Layton were killed, along with nine Afghan security force personnel.
Westbrook survived the battle, but died a month later from complications.
“To the families of those we’ve lost, we will never forget,” said Obama, adding that the nation is grateful for those who served that day and all who continue to serve “with such incredible courage and professionalism.”