WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will bestow a Medal of Honor today 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.
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. 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.
Today, 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.