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.
The circumstances of the delayed decoration are now the subject of a Pentagon investigation.
Another soldier in the same battle, Corporal Dakota Meyer, whose description of events differs from Swenson’s, received the Medal of Honor in September 2011. Their lives have since taken very different paths.
Meyer won fame with a book, while Swenson has been unemployed since leaving the military in 2011 after what he called his “forced early retirement.”
But despite friction with the military, he is apparently ready to put back on his uniform. “Swenson has contacted us about returning to the Army,” spokesman George Wright told AFP.
Tuesday’s ceremony served as a partial vindication for Swenson, who has kept a low-profile since the clash in eastern Afghanistan, one of the most notorious firefights of the 12-year-old war.
“I have to say Will is a pretty low-key guy,” Obama said. “His idea of a good time isn’t a big ceremony like this one.”
An official military account of the 2009 battle says “Swenson braved intense enemy fire, and willfully put his life in danger against the enemy’s main effort, multiple times, in service of his fallen and wounded comrades, his unit, his country, and his endangered Afghan partners.”
The Americans and Afghans faced a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades, mortar bombs and machinegun fire from insurgents who had been lying in wait in the hills of the rugged Ganjgal valley.
Five American troops and nine Afghan soldiers, as well as a local translator, were killed. Two dozen Afghans and four Americans, including Swenson, were wounded.
A reporter with McClatchy Newspapers who accompanied the troops in the battle, Jonathan Landay, witnessed Swenson calling for air and artillery support on the radio as Taliban insurgents had the Americans pinned down behind a stone wall.
The artillery fire request was rejected by superiors who were following new rules designed to avoid civilian casualties. US attack helicopters did not arrive for more than an hour.
A subsequent military investigation resulted in disciplinary action against two officers over their response to the deadly battle.
AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski