News: Former Army captain receives Medal of Honor at White House
Story by Lisa Ferdinando
WASHINGTON - Former Army Capt. William D. Swenson received the nation's highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for actions during a fierce, six-hour battle following a deadly ambush in Afghanistan.
Swenson, who is the first Army officer to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, was honored at the White House, Oct. 15.
Guests at the ceremony included other Medal of Honor recipients, soldiers and Marines who fought alongside Swenson, and the families of service members who died in battle.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno and Under Secretary of the Army Dr. Joseph W. Westphal also attended.
Before draping the medal around Swenson's neck, President Barack Obama recounted the heroic actions of the Army officer who saved more than a dozen lives during the Battle of Ganjgal in Kunar Province on Sept. 8, 2009.
Swenson is the second person to receive the Medal of Honor for that battle. Then-Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer was honored for his valor two years ago.
Swenson is a remarkable example to the nation of the professionalism and patriotism that everyone should strive for, the president said.
"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," he said.
Swenson was an embedded adviser to the Afghan National Border Police, Task Force Phoenix, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, in support of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.
Swenson 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," he said. "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," Obama said.
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 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," said Obama. "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. Before the helicopter left, Swenson kissed Westbrook on the forehead in "a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms," said Obama.
Risking his own life again, Swenson then drove an unarmored vehicle straight into the kill zone to rescue injured Afghan forces, said Obama.
He returned into the path of enemy fire again, when he and a Humvee crew recovered the four fallen service members, said Obama.
"Will and the others carry them out, one by one," said Obama. "They bring their fallen brothers home."
The service members killed were Marine Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Navy Corpsman Petty Officer 3rd Class James Layton.
Nine Afghan National Security Force personnel died.
Westbrook survived the battle, but died a month later from complications.
"To the families of those we've lost, we will never forget," Obama said, adding that the nation is grateful for those who served that day and all who continue to serve "with such incredible courage and professionalism."