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Uncommon path to Medal of Honor ceremony for Afghan war hero Swenson

October 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to former Army Capt. William Swenson for his brave actions to aid his fellow soldiers when his unit was ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ray Suarez speaks with David Nakamura of The Washington Post for more on allegations that Swenson's nomination was delayed within the military.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The nation’s highest military honor was awarded today to a soldier for his bravery and humanity on the battlefield.

Ray Suarez has our story.

PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think our nation needs this ceremony today.

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama made the formal award to William Swenson in the White House East Room, and he alluded to the fiscal fight dominating Washington.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: In moments like this, Americans like Will remind us what our country can be at its best.

RAY SUAREZ: The former Army captain is only the sixth living recipients for actions taken in Iraq or Afghanistan. In December 2009, he was serving as an embedded trainer and mentor to Afghan security forces. This Army simulation shows how his unit was ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Ganjgal Valley in Kunar Province, near the Pakistan border.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA: And then Will learns that his noncommissioned officer, Sergeant 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, has been shot in the neck. So Will breaks across 50 meters of open space, bullets biting all around. Lying on his back, he presses a bandage to Kenneth’s wounds with one hand and calls for a medevac with the other, trying to keep his buddy calm.

By this time, the enemy’s gotten even closer, just 20 or 30 meters away. And over the radio, they’re demanding the Americans to surrender. So Will stops treating Kenneth long enough to respond by lobbing a grenade.

And, finally, after more than an hour-and-a-half of fighting, air support arrives.

RAY SUAREZ: A helmet cam worn by a crewman in a medevac helicopter showed Swenson kissing the sergeant’s head to reassure him. Westbrook ultimately died, joining the four Americans, 10 Afghan troops and an interpreter killed in the ambush.

Another man involved in that fight, Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer, was awarded his Medal of Honor in 2011. The Pentagon is now investigating allegations that Swenson’s nomination was delayed because he criticized superiors over the handling of the battle. The military says his paperwork was lost.

To help fill in this story, I’m joined now by David Nakamura of The Washington Post. He has interviewed Swenson many times.

And while this is a story of uncommon heroism, is it also fair to say that it was an uncommon path to today’s medal ceremony?

DAVID NAKAMURA, The Washington Post: Absolutely.

It’s been a long four years, Ray, for Will Swenson. He left the military two years ago. And he went back to his native Seattle, where he is from, where he went to college. And he has really kept a low profile, in part I think because of the controversy surrounding his award. There is a lot of allegations that the Army was concerned about his criticism, concerned about what kind of representation he would give if he was on a public stage like this.

However, there has been pressure from outside, both from reports in the media, but also a U.S. congressman got involved, asking, what happened to his nomination? He deserves the award. He’s got it today. He stood up there like a good soldier and accepted the award and was back in his uniform. It was a very powerful moment.

RAY SUAREZ: The president touched on it lightly. As he did — as he does at all medal ceremonies, he told the story of how this award came to be.

It took a long time for those men to get air support when they were pinned down by those snipers.

DAVID NAKAMURA: Absolutely.

And our reporting showed that it’s about — it took about 90 minutes, from what we understand from eyewitnesses, people involved in the ambush, 90 minutes of pure fighting. These were 11 or so U.S. trainers with Afghan national army troops and border police who were allied with the U.S., but were not completely under our command.

And so some of those folks just ran off into battle. The U.S. soldiers got — and Marine Corps got separated from one another, which was a part of the problem. The communication was cut off at one point. And so they were really stranded on the battlefield for a long time. It took two hours Will Swenson and his men to move back.

They suffered casualties, including Kenneth Westbrook, as the video showed. And that was a problem. And they eventually were able to regroup, go back out. And they found the former — three Marines and a Navy corpsman who had been killed, unfortunately.

RAY SUAREZ: What are some of the explanations for why we were so slow, our military was so slow in responding to men in real trouble?

DAVID NAKAMURA: Well, there was an investigation.

I think, overall, what was going on at the time was the U.S. had a surge, but there were — civilian casualties in Afghanistan were mounting up. And that was harming the U.S. mission, which was to gain trust of those in the outer villages. So, the generals involved, General McChrystal had tightened the rules of engagement.

But the Army did — after Will Swenson raised these concerns, did do an investigation and reprimanded two officers back at the command that was based to try to support this mission, and found that they had acted negligibly and ended up sanctioning both of them severely.

Because of privacy rules, we don’t know exactly what happened to them. But they did sanction those two. But, again, I think Will Swenson created a little bit of ill will among his superiors because of his criticism.

RAY SUAREZ: As we mentioned earlier, another Marine has already been decorated with the Medal of Honor for that same firefight. Are there multiple versions of what happened that day in Ganjgal Valley?

DAVID NAKAMURA: There are — and just to make the caveat that there always in the fog of war can be that.

I don’t think anybody thinks there’s going to be an airtight story that all 11 men or some — would agree on. But what happened was Corporal Meyer, who won this award two years ago, he was 21 years old at the time, everyone says he acted very heroically and probably deserved a medal.

But there’s been some sense that his story was inflated, in part because of the fog of war, in part because perhaps the military — the Marine Corps really was eager for a medal. And then the president sort of took the narrative and sort of — and put it out in public at the awards ceremony and credited him with saving more people and perhaps killing more insurgents than the reporting has showed to be accurate.

That has been a bit of a concern. And it’s conflicted with what Will Swenson has tried to say. And so now here comes Swenson, not out of personal interest, but more Swenson saying, I want to tell the truth. And so he’s not been out there doing a lot of media until this week, because he’s sort of accepting the award — he knows he has to.

But he’s been back in Seattle, like I said, trying to get this story out in the right way, he says, which is through the military doing this investigation and coming out with the facts.

RAY SUAREZ: Briefly, he has since separated from the military. Has he had a tough time in civilian life? And what is he up to now?

DAVID NAKAMURA: He is.

Again, he left in 2011. In my conversations with him, he said, I’m in Seattle, but I’m not — I have been unemployed. He sort of cynically referred — sarcastically referred to it as my forced early retirement.

He never planned this. He was a Ranger. He was a dedicated military guy, really liked what he was doing. He was 30 years old at the time of the battle. But he’s been out since. I’m just hearing late word, though — this is a remarkable twist, if it’s accurate — and it’s been confirmed now by the Army that I talked to recently — he has asked, maybe as late as today, to be returned to active duty.

And the Army is now — you know, he’s not said this, but the Army is confirming this just a few hours ago. They said they are processing him like they would anybody else. He will have to redo a drug test. But he retired — I mean, he left the Army admirably, nobly. And it looks likely that he may be back in the Army and back either as a captain or possibly a major.

RAY SUAREZ: David Nakamura from The Washington Post, thanks a lot.

DAVID NAKAMURA: Thanks, Ray.