Former Army Captain Inducted Into Pentagon Hall of Heroes
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 16, 2013 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Army Secretary John M. McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno inducted former Army Capt. William D. Swenson into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes today during a ceremony at the Pentagon.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno unveils the Hall of Heroes plaque at an induction ceremony for Medal of Honor recipient former Army Capt. William Swenson at the Pentagon, Oct. 16, 2013. DOD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
President Barack Obama presented Swenson with the Medal of Honor at the White House yesterday. He was nominated for his actions while serving as an embedded trainer for the 1st Zone Afghan National Border Police. Swenson is the first Army officer to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War and the sixth living recipient from the war in Afghanistan.
Hagel said he could not improve on what has been said about Swenson over the past few days, but "one particular point that President Obama made yesterday was that at a time in our country when we need more unifying dimensions and dynamics to remind us who we are … the Will Swenson story does that."
While taking part in an operation that included U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Border Police elements, Swenson repeatedly risked his life to rescue his comrades -- Afghan and American -- during an enemy ambush in the Ganjgal valley.
This is a time of mixed emotions, McHugh said. "A time when we pay tribute to uncommon valor, but at the same time we mourn and remember the horrible loss of comrades and friends.”
As dawn broke on Sept. 8, 2009, the combined element departed their vehicles and made their way up the valley on foot toward Ganjgal village, the site of a planned leader engagement mission. The column consisted of 106 personnel: 60 Afghan soldiers; 14 U.S. Marine Corps embedded training team mentors; 30 Afghan border police officers; and Swenson and Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, both advisors to the border police. The dismounted patrol was made necessary by the terrain and by reports of improvised explosive devices along the road.
Perched high in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, Ganjgal village lies near the head of a U-shaped valley lined with loose rocks and boulders washed down from the steep, terraced slopes. A narrow, ungraded road -- not wide enough for heavy military vehicles -- snakes through the valley, which ends at the border with Pakistan.
The operation that morning, dubbed Buri Booza II, was being conducted at the behest of village leaders, who had visited the local forward operating base, FOB Joyce, a few days earlier and invited the Afghan and coalition forces there to come assess repairs needed on the Ganjgal mosque.
Intelligence reports indicated that the operation was unlikely to encounter a large or heavily-armed force. However, patrols entering Ganjgal valley were regularly engaged by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, usually from small groups taking advantage of the high ground, and the combined force was prepared for that prospect.
Instead, they walked into a three-sided ambush by at least 60 enemy armed with RPGs, mortars, PKM machine guns and AK-47s.
As sunlight crept its way into the valley, the patrol broke into three elements. Swenson, Westbrook and their Afghan Border Patrol counterparts walked up the center of the wash at the bottom of the valley with two small elements from the embedded training team leading the way, while the remaining Marines and their Afghan army counterparts took up support positions to the north and south of the column.
Hidden in trenches and buildings and positioned on the slopes above the village, the Taliban fighters opened fire as the Marines and Afghan soldiers at the head of the column crested a rise in the wash about 100 meters from the village. The steep terrain made it difficult for the patrol elements to maintain visual and audio contact as they sought cover, but Swenson was able to call for artillery to disrupt the enemy’s attack.
Despite the incoming artillery fire, the insurgents were able to gain the initiative due to a combination of the complicated terrain and proximity to the village. After about an hour of fighting, they had drawn to within 50 meters of Swenson’s men. Unable to re-establish contact with the patrol’s lead elements, with wounded troops accumulating, Swenson coordinated for combat aviation and helicopter support to evacuate the wounded.
Learning that Westbrook had been shot, Swenson and Marine Corps 1st Lt. Ademola D. Fabayo and 1st Sgt. Christopher Garza -- also seriously wounded -- exposed themselves to enemy fire by maneuvering through open areas to Westbrook’s position and began administering first aid.
After more than an hour and a half of fighting, two OH-58D Kiowa Scout helicopters arrived and began engaging the enemy under the direction of Swenson. The helicopters provided the distraction Swenson, Fabayo, Garza and Jonathan Landay, a reporter embedded with the Marines, needed to carry Westbrook to an evacuation point. Westbrook later died of his injuries.
Swenson and Fabayo returned to the battlefield twice again in an unarmored Afghan border police vehicle to evacuate the wounded. Unable to establish contact with the lead element of three Marines, a Navy corpsman and their Afghan army counterparts, Swenson worked with the air support pilot in an effort to locate the missing men. An the same time, Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez and Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer were engaging in a similar effort to recover wounded troops.
After two trips up the valley, Swenson and Fabayo’s vehicle became too damaged to return to the kill zone a third time, but enemy fire was making it impossible for a combat search and rescue helicopter to land. So, Swenson returned to where the patrol had left their vehicles and brought back four armored vehicles, stopping to pick up Meyer on the way back to the battlefield.
The convoy succeeded in extracting several more wounded Afghan troops, but was unable to find the missing lead element -- even after a dismounted search. After several hours of searching, the fallen men were finally located from the air, and their position was marked with smoke.
With the help of air support, Swenson, Fabayo, Rodriguez-Chavez, Meyer and several Afghan soldiers once again battled their way through enemy fire toward the now-marked position. They found their comrades at the bottom of a deep trench that had been impossible to see during their earlier ground searches. The rescue team recovered the bodies of their fallen comrades and returned to the evacuation point. Swenson went immediately afterward to verify with the Afghan forces that there were no remaining missing personnel.
Five Americans and nine Afghans died as a result of the fighting. Rodriguez-Chavez and Fabayo received the Navy Cross for their actions. Meyer as well, received the Medal of Honor in 2011 for his role in the same battle. In addition, a Silver Star and nine Bronze Stars with “V” devices were awarded out of the battle.
Swenson proved his heroism over and over again through his actions that day, Hagel said. And Swenson continued to prove it even after the battle, when “he dared to question the institution that he was faithful to and loyal to. Mistakes were made in his case. Now, that’s courage, and that’s integrity and that’s character.”
Swenson’s biggest contribution to the nation will most likely come later, as he serves as a role model for generations to come, the defense secretary said.
“That is our biggest, most significant responsibility -- to improve upon the inheritance that we were each given. ... make it better, inspire, uplift our people, our families, our countries and the world," the secretary said.