By Jonathan S. Landay McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday will bestow a Medal of Honor on a second living serviceman for selfless gallantry beyond the call of duty during a 2009 battle with Taliban insurgents in the eastern Afghanistan valley of Ganjgal.
Former Army Capt. William Swenson will receive the nation’s highest military award for heroism a little more than two years after Obama decorated Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer in a White House ceremony. Swenson is the first living Army officer who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to be awarded the honor and the 13th recipient of the medal in the two foreign conflicts.
Swenson, 34, of Seattle, was nominated for his role in extracting U.S. and Afghan forces who were trapped in an ambush by some 60 Taliban hiding on the ridgelines and in a village at the end of the U-shaped valley. He then returned repeatedly to the battlefield – including for a final run with Meyer, two other Marines and an Afghan translator – to recover American and Afghan casualties under fire.
What’s extraordinary, however, is not only the two Medals of Honor and the many other decorations bestowed on U.S. servicemen who fought at Gangjal, but also how the clash has been dogged by controversy from the moment it erupted on Sept. 8, 2009, to this day.
The Army narrative of Swenson’s deeds and sworn statements by American participants in the battle conflict with details of Meyer’s 2012 memoir and the Marine Corps and White House versions of his actions prepared for Meyer’s Sept. 15, 2011, award ceremony.
An ongoing investigation by a McClatchy reporter who survived the ambush also determined that crucial details of the official accounts and passages in the book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War,” were embellished, unsubstantiated or never happened.
The Marine Corps and the White House have defended their narratives of Meyer’s actions as accurate.
“I wrote my book to the best of my recollection. I wrote it the best I could remember it. I never read the investigation. I’ve never read any narratives,” Meyer said in a telephone interview Friday.
Swenson declined in an interview Sunday to be drawn into discussing the matter in any depth. But he said the Army account of his actions was rooted in statements given under oath by American servicemen who were there.
“I am not telling a story,” he said. “This is a story being told by my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were on that battlefield that day and whose statements are captured in documents, legally binding, and that is the story that is being told.”
He added that he saw Meyer perform brave acts and admired him “as a Marine.”
Meyer, 25, of Columbia, Ky., paid tribute to Swenson’s courage and said he was happy that Swenson was finally receiving the honor for which he was nominated nearly four years ago.
The battle and its aftermath have been tainted since the Taliban fired the first shots soon after sunrise as a column of Afghan troops and border police and their Marine and Army trainers made their way up a rocky wash on a goodwill mission to the village of Ganjgal in eastern Kunar province.
Tipped off in advance, the insurgents rained down waves of gunfire and shells from the village and the surrounding slopes. Five Americans, nine Afghan troops and an Afghan translator were killed. Seventeen others, including Swenson and Meyer, were wounded. A nearby U.S. base withheld air support, effective artillery cover and a relief force for 90 minutes, despite repeated radio requests by Swenson and others, leading to career-ending reprimands for two Army officers.
Speaking later to military investigators, Swenson implicitly accused senior U.S. generals of getting U.S. troops killed by imposing politically driven rules of engagement that emphasized the protection of civilians. The restrictive guidelines induced American officers to be overly cautious and second-guess troops on the battlefield, he asserted, according to a copy of his statement obtained by McClatchy.
“I understand the necessity of saving as many lives as I can,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is combat. I can’t be perfect, but I can do what I feel, what’s right at the time. When I am being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC (tactical operations center), well, hell, why am I even out there? Let’s just … sit back and play Nintendo.”
From that unseemly beginning, the route to the White House for Swenson and Meyer diverged.
Meyer’s Medal of Honor nomination – submitted two months after Swenson’s was put in – sped through the approval process. It brought a book contract, high-profile media appearances and celebrity that Meyer has used to help jobless veterans find work.
Swenson’s life took a very different path.
His nomination file inexplicably vanished from every military computer system midway through the approval process in 2010.
The Army said Swenson’s original nomination file was lost through bureaucratic bungling due to a high staff turnover at the U.S. headquarters in Kabul. An internal military investigation into what happened ended inconclusively, according to the findings, obtained by McClatchy, and the investigation was ordered closed despite uncovering evidence of a possible improper bid to kill Swenson’s award.
The Defense Department Inspector General’s Office is investigating the file’s mishandling by Swenson’s chain of command, which included retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan at the time.
Swenson, meanwhile, quit the Army in February 2011 and returned to his native Seattle. An intensely private man, he’s lived quietly by the Puget Sound without a job, making forays into the snowy peaks of the nearby mountains, often sleeping in the open.
He spends considerable time in his backyard, scattering seed for chipmunks or hanging containers of sugar water for hummingbirds. Earlier this year, he spent days on ladders precariously suspended down a cliff face, clearing away vegetation for a path to the ocean’s edge.
On Tuesday afternoon, Swenson will stand in the White House before hundreds of family members, close friends, other veterans of the battle and senior political and military officials as Obama awards him the nation’s highest military honor.