By Jonathan S. Landay McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — A California congressman said Tuesday he was considering asking the Pentagon inspector general to investigate why President Barack Obama hasn’t approved the nation’s highest military award for gallantry for a former Army captain whose nomination has been stalled at the White House since last summer.
Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. said that before requesting a probe, he wanted to give the Army and the Defense Department a final opportunity to explain the delay in awarding the Medal of Honor to former Army Capt. William Swenson for valor for acts he performed during a 2009 battle in eastern Afghanistan.
Seeking an inspector general’s inquiry “is something that we’re talking about if the Army and the Defense Department don’t come out and say why” Swenson hasn’t been awarded the medal yet, said Hunter, a former Marine who served two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “It shouldn’t be complicated to come out and do the right thing.”
In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Hunter said the holdup with Swenson’s decoration was emblematic of wider problems with a military award system that he has long charged lacks transparency and is susceptible to improper interference and manipulation.
“There’re too many political considerations in the Medal of Honor process, and I don’t know what happens now with Secretary Panetta leaving — if that is going to delay things even more,” Hunter said, speaking of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “Congress shouldn’t have to get involved in this. You simply want the awards process and the process within DoD to be transparent and to have people held accountable.”
The White House didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment. Lt. Col. Laurel Devine, the deputy director of Army Public Affairs, referred an inquiry to the Defense Department. George Little, a spokesman for Panetta, wrote in an email that he had no comment.
Hunter’s remarks came four days after Obama announced that former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha would receive the Medal of Honor for valorous actions during a clash in eastern Afghanistan that occurred three weeks after the battle for which Swenson was nominated. Romesha, of Minot, N.D., is only the fourth living recipient of the award from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Obama awarded then-Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor in September 2011 for heroism in the same battle for which Swenson was nominated.
Swenson, 33, of Seattle, declined to comment for this article. The first living Army officer nominated for the Medal of Honor in four decades, he resigned from the service in February 2011.
He was nominated for gallantry in the Sept. 8, 2009, battle of the Ganjgal Valley, one of the most extraordinary military confrontations of the post-9/11 wars, a six-hour clash that erupted when some 50 to 60 Taliban-led insurgents ambushed a contingent of Afghan troops and border police and U.S. trainers.
Five American and nine Afghan service personnel and an Afghan translator died; 24 Afghans and four Americans, including Swenson and Meyer, were wounded. In addition to the two Medal of Honor nominations, participants received a slew of other commendations. Moreover, two Army officers received reprimands for dereliction of duty for spurning calls by Swenson and others for artillery and air support.
According to a draft Army narrative obtained by McClatchy Newspapers, Swenson, an adviser to the Afghan Border Police, was cited for helping to extricate the force, which was denied air and artillery cover despite the demands for support. He then repeatedly drove back to the ambush site under heavy fire to recover Afghan and U.S. casualties. He was joined by Meyer, two other Marines and an Afghan translator in a final foray to retrieve the bodies of three Marines and a Navy corpsman.
Swenson was first nominated on Dec. 18, 2009. However, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, had to resubmit Swenson’s papers in July 2011 after they were “lost” in what the Army later claimed was in a bureaucratic foul-up due partly to high staff turnover at U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), the American contingent in NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force.
But a McClatchy Newspapers investigation published Aug. 6, 2012, found that an internal U.S. military probe indicated that as Meyer’s nomination sailed through the approval process, there may have been an effort to kill Swenson’s nomination.
The military investigation uncovered U.S. Army PowerPoint briefing slides showing that Swenson’s nomination was improperly downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross after his papers arrived at USFOR-A headquarters in Kabul on May 19, 2010. The lesser award nomination then was sent for approval to U.S. Central Command, in Tampa, Fla., according to the slides.
Moreover, military investigators failed to find any trace of Swenson’s Medal of Honor packet — typically comprising a draft citation, a draft narrative and dozens of digitized documents supporting the nomination — “or any other award” for Swenson on any computers except for a tiny excerpt on a classified computer network.
The period in which the slides showed the downgrade taking place corresponded with the second month of now-retired Army Gen. David Petraeus’ stint as the commander of ISAF and USFOR-A. Petraeus, who resigned as CIA director on Nov. 9, told McClatchy Newspapers in August that he had “no recollection of seeing this packet.”
Regulations prohibit U.S. commanders from downgrading Medal of Honor nominations. They only may recommend approval, disapproval or disapproval with a downgrade to a lesser award. They then must forward the packet up the command chain until it reaches the president, who has the sole authority to approve it or downgrade it.
Every level of the command chain is thought to have recommended approval of Swenson’s resubmitted nomination.
Asked how long he will wait for the Army and the Pentagon to explain the holdup with Swenson’s award before seeking an inspector general investigation, Hunter replied, “Until it becomes apparent that they are just stonewalling. I think pretty soon.”
“This shouldn’t be super secret. It shouldn’t be as hard and as bureaucratic as the Department of Defense is making it even though this award nomination has been there for years,” he said.
An investigation by a McClatchy Newspapers correspondent who survived the ambush found that the Marine Corps and the White House had inflated their accounts of Meyer’s deeds, attributing acts to him that were embellished, unsubstantiated or couldn’t have happened.
Some parts of the Meyer accounts conflict with the Army’s draft account of Swenson’s actions. Untangling the differences may explain the delay in Swenson’s award, although the Marines and the White House said their accounts of Meyer’s deeds were accurate.