The Medal of Honor Society Gains its Newest Member
Out of a cloud of dust appears an American soldier, missing his helmet and waving an orange flag. Blatantly putting himself in harm’s way, he guides a helicopter to the ground, grabs a medic and charges back into the conflict for a fellow soldier wounded in battle. Dodging enemy fire, the two carry Sgt. Kenneth Westbrook the length of two football fields to the helicopter for medical attention. Then, a moment of compassion: the soldier kisses Westbrook on the forehead and says goodbye.
This is the scene from a viral video, captured by a shaky helmet camera, that has exposed Americans first-hand to a small segment of U.S. Army Captain William Swenson’s heroic actions during the Battle of Ganjgal on September 8, 2009 where he was working as an embedded trainer for the Afghan Border Police.
Four years ago, Afghan and US troops hiked up narrow and winding trails in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan to meet with a group of village elders. On the outskirts of Ganjgal, the quiet morning trek abruptly ended. The troops were surrounded from three sides, some even pinned down by enemy forces.
“We were outnumbered, outgunned and taking casualties,” said Swenson.
Rocket grenades, mortars and artillery from machine guns rained down on the troops. Swenson, returned fire and called for air support, a request that was denied due to the close proximity of a village. At this time, Westbrook was severely injured and yelling for help. With one hand, Swenson tended to his fellow comrade and with the other he called a medevac.
After an hour and a half of fighting, air support finally arrived and Swenson, exposed to enemy fire, helped direct them to landing and carried Westbrook to safety. This is the scene and moment of kindness captured in the viral video.
“I wanted to convey to him that I was proud of him and that his fight was over,” Swenson said in an interview with ABC. “That was an act that shows that bond that every soldier, every sailor, every airman and every marine has with their fellow service member.”
Swenson’s heroism continued as he and a Marine got behind the wheel of an unarmored Ford Ranger pickup truck and drove in and out of the battle two times to help injured Afghan soldiers. Eventually, the truck broke down, so they got in a Humvee and continued to help. Swenson dodged even more bullets and carried his fallen American brothers home.
On October 15, 2013 Swenson’s courage was recognized in a quiet ceremony at the White House. With a somber look on his face, Swenson received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama and joined the elite society of America’s greatest heroes.
“Scripture tells us the greatest among you shall be your servant,” Obama said at the ceremony. “Captain Will Swenson was a leader on that September morning, 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.”
Swenson, whose original nomination file was said to be lost, is the first Army officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor since Vietnam and the sixth living recipient for actions in the War on Terror. Tuesday, October 15, was a historic day as it was also the second time in half a century the medal was given to two survivors of the same battle. Fellow recipient, Corporal Dakota Meyer, was recognized for his actions in the Battle of Ganjgal and awarded the medal in 2011.
“Will Swenson was there for his brothers, he was there for their families,” said Obama. “We thank God that patriots like him are there for us all.”
Now 34, the retired officer lives in Seattle and enjoys the outdoors. Recently, Swenson has asked to return to active duty, a request that is rare for a recipient, and is currently under review.