WASHINGTON – A former Army captain whose heroic actions in a deadly Afghan battle were captured on video received the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, from President Barack Obama on Tuesday at the White House.
Obama placed the award around the neck of William D. Swenson for his actions in a lengthy battle against the Taliban in the Ganjgal valley near the Pakistan border four years ago, which claimed the lives of five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter.
Obama noted that although the honor has been bestowed nearly 3,500 times in U.S. history, never before had Americans been able to witness a small part of the bravery that led to it. The video captured from cameras mounted on the helmets of evacuation helicopter pilots showed Swenson delivering a severely wounded soldier to the helicopter and placing a kiss on his head as he placed him inside.
Swenson, 34, retired from the military in February 2011 and has been living in Seattle. But two U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Swenson has asked to return to active duty, and the Army is working to allow it.
Swenson was serving as a trainer and mentor embedded with the Afghan National Security Forces in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan when they came under fire near dawn Sept. 8, 2009. Obama recounted how Swenson dodged enemy fire, without a helmet, and risked his life to recover bodies and help save fellow troops.
“Will Swenson was there for his brothers,” Obama said.
The president called Swenson a “pretty low key guy,” who would rather be on a Pacific Northwest mountain trail surrounded by cedar trees instead of in front of the cameras at the White House. But Obama, perhaps thinking of the current partisan budget dispute gripping Washington, said, “I think our nation needs this ceremony today.”
“In moments like this, Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best, a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard – maybe especially when it’s hard,” Obama said. “And, Will, you’re an example to everyone in this city and to our whole country of the professionalism and patriotism that we should strive for, whether we wear a uniform or not, not just on particular occasions but all the time.”
After the Ganjgal battle, Swenson complained to military leaders after the fight that many of his calls for help were rejected by superior officers. Two Army officers were reprimanded for being “inadequate and ineffective” and for “contributing directly to the loss of life” following an investigation into the day’s events.
Four Americans died in the ambush: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., a 31-year-old gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga. Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M., who Swenson delivered to the helicopter with a kiss, later died from his wounds.
The military says Swenson’s initial medal nomination was lost. Another man who fought in the battle, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011.
Swenson is the sixth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama also attended Tuesday’s medal ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor contributed to this report.