WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama honored a former U.S. Army captain’s courage and compassion Tuesday, almost four years after an acrimonious dispute stalled his nomination for the military’s prized Medal of Honor.
Capt. William Swenson, 34, was lauded at an emotional White House ceremony, but it followed competing claims about the ferocious battle in Afghanistan for which his gallantry is now recognized.
Swenson fought back tears as Obama paid tribute to fallen comrades whom Swenson tried to save after an ambush on Sept. 8, 2009.
He received America’s highest military decoration for his “extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty” for risking his life repeatedly to rescue wounded soldiers and retrieve troops killed on the battlefield.
Swenson is only the sixth living recipient to be given the Medal of Honor for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The six-hour clash in Kunar province saw 50 to 60 insurgents ambush Afghan troops and U.S. military trainers at dawn as they arrived for meetings with elders in the village of Ganjgal.
Obama described Swenson as a selfless man devoted to his comrades. A recently released video from helicopter pilots showed him helping a seriously wounded soldier onto a chopper.
“Amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he does something unexpected,” Obama said. “He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head. A simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms.”
Swenson was nominated for the medal in December 2009, but army officials later said his paperwork had been lost. The nomination was resubmitted in July 2011 by the commander in Afghanistan at the time.
Swenson’s supporters allege commanders tried to discredit him and deny him the medal because he complained to military investigators that repeated requests for airstrikes and artillery fire had gone unheeded.
The circumstances of the delayed decoration are the subject of a Pentagon investigation.
Another soldier in the battle, Cpl. Dakota Meyer, whose description of events differs from Swenson’s, received the Medal of Honor in September 2011. Their lives have since taken very different paths. Meyer won fame with a book, while Swenson has been unemployed since leaving the military in 2011 in what he called “forced early retirement.”
But despite friction with the military, he is apparently ready to put back on his uniform. “Swenson has contacted us about returning to the army,” spokesman George Wright said.
Tuesday’s ceremony served as a partial vindication for Swenson, who has kept a low profile since the clash in eastern Afghanistan, one of the most notorious of the 12-year-old war.
An official military account of the 2009 battle says “Swenson braved intense enemy fire, and willfully put his life in danger against the enemy’s main effort, multiple times, in service of his fallen and wounded comrades, his unit, his country, and his endangered Afghan partners.”
Five American troops and nine Afghan soldiers, as well as a local translator, were killed. Two dozen Afghans and four Americans, including Swenson, were wounded.