Washington (AFP) – President Barack Obama honored a former U.S. Army captain’s courage and compassion, almost four years after an acrimonious dispute stalled his nomination for the military’s prized Medal of Honor.
Captain William Swenson, 34, was lauded at an emotional White House ceremony, but his day in the limelight followed competing claims about the ferocious battle in Afghanistan for which his gallantry is now recognized.
Swenson, clad in a dark blue uniform, fought back tears as Obama paid tribute to fallen comrades who the officer tried to save after an ambush on September 8, 2009.
He received America’s highest military decoration for his “extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty,” after risking his life repeatedly to rescue wounded soldiers and retrieve U.S. troops killed on the battlefield.
Swenson, who may yet return to service, is only the sixth living recipient to be given the Medal of Honor for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The harrowing six-hour clash in Kunar province saw 50 to 60 insurgents ambush Afghan troops and U.S. military trainers at dawn as they arrived for planned meetings with local elders in the village of Ganjgal.
Obama described Swenson as a selfless man devoted to his comrades. A recently released video from helicopter pilots showed the army captain helping a seriously wounded soldier on to a chopper.
“Amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he does something unexpected,” Obama said.
“He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head. A simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms.”
Swenson was nominated for the medal in December 2009, but army officials said his paperwork was “lost”. The nomination was resubmitted in July 2011 by the then commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen.
Swenson’s supporters allege commanders tried to discredit him and deny him the medal because he complained to military investigators that repeated requests for air strikes and artillery fire went unheeded.