Will Swenson is officially an American war hero, awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s most prestigious decoration for his actions in Afghanistan. But in the eyes of the Army, he was, for a time, a target of surveillance. Army investigators staked out his house. They went through his trash. And it all started because Swenson was mentioned in a book review posted to Amazon.com.
The Army’s treatment of Swenson is one of a number of high-profile cases where the military has launched investigations into highly-decorated troops—only to have the investigations themselves come under scrutiny. Top congressmen have demanded answers from the Secretary of the Army, while insiders speculate that the deep dive into Swenson’s life was a political stunt. Before President Obama gave Swenson the Medal of Honor, he was known as much for his stinging criticism of Army leadership as he was for his heroism at the Battle of Gangal.
“There’s good reason to suspect that the investigation into Swenson was really about his award, his criticism of the Army, and the hope that agents would find something to shut him up,” said a source knowledgeable about the investigation. “All of the details the Army was looking to confirm were all within their reach from the beginning, without speaking to Swenson.”
A single Internet comment started the trail that led agents to Swenson’s Seattle condo in May of 2012, a year before Obama hung the medal on him. Documents obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast show that the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, or CID, sent agents to question Swenson because he was thanked—along with several other people—in a paragraph-long book review.
The book, The Wrong War by former Pentagon official Bing West, was reviewed on Amazon in February 2011 by Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, then a highly decorated Green Beret. Later that year, Golsteyn was accused of an undisclosed violation of the military’s rules of engagement for killing a known bomb maker during his 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. No charges were ever brought against Golsteyn. Nonetheless he was pushed out of Special Forces and Army Secretary John McHugh revoked his Silver Star, the third-highest award possible, saying Golsteyn’s award would not have been approved if commanders had known about the allegations against him.
The allegations against Golsteyn were enough to punish him—and, to turn the single mention of Swenson in his Amazon post into the key piece of evidence tying the two together.
The Army’s treatment of Golsteyn was detailed in an article for The Daily Beast written by Congressman Duncan Hunter. Before he took on Golsteyn’s case, Hunter led the congressional effort advocating for Swenson to receive the Medal of Honor and calling for a review of the military’s awards process.
A letter dated Novemer 13, 2013 from the offices of Hunter and Congressman Adam Kinzinger, obtained by The Daily Beast, raised a series of questions about the Army’s investigation of Golsteyn and the decision to send agents to Swenson’s home.
“We are particularly interested to know why special agents from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command visited Swenson's residence in Seattle Washington, even going as far as confronting his neighbors,” the Congressmen wrote. “What is or was the relevant connection between MAJ Golsteyn and Mr. Swenson?”
Answers came in a January 15, 2014 letter signed by Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who mentioned the book review as the basis for investigators’ interest in Swenson and noted that “Mr. Swenson had also been deployed to Afghanistan around the same time period as MAJ Golsteyn, and was potentially in the same area of operations when the alleged offenses under investigation took place.”
Yet the nature of Swenson’s relationship with Golsteyn is unclear. After Golsteyn came under investigation Swenson wrote a letter on his behalf. But according to the letter sent by Reps. Hunter and Kinzinger, “the two of them had not been in direct contact since 2009.”
Attempts to reach Golsteyn were made through his lawyer. Swenson was contacted through an intermediary familiar with the investigation. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Agents said they tried repeatedly to contact Swenson by phone before going to his house. A source familiar with Swenson’s account of the events said he never received any calls or voice messages. Had investigators reached Swenson by phone the investigation may have been only a minor inconvenience.
Instead, CID agents went to his house, and proceeded to stake it out.
According to McHugh’s letter, agents placed Swenson’s house under observation in order to “accurately verify his residence so that he could be interviewed.”
Swenson was nowhere to be found. So agents reportedly buzzed all of his neighbors, according to a source familiar with CID’s report on the investigation. Those neighbors were asked if they knew Swenson’s whereabouts and told that he was being sought as a possible witness to a crime committed in Afghanistan.
When Swenson’s girlfriend pulled up in her car to his house, agents approached he for questioning. She didn’t tell them much, but the experience “rattled her,” said a source familiar with the investigation. When agents saw her emptying what they though was ashes from a trash can they called the local police for approval to pick through the couple’s garbage.
Swenson had been out of the Army for over a year at this point after a bitter departure. He called it a “forced early retirement.”
By most accounts Swenson was intensely private. He spent time alone in the mountains near his home. His long hair and beard, grown in the months after he left the service, would not have marked him as a former Army officer among his neighbors. If any were aware of his past, they must have been surprised to see criminal investigators looking for a man who had already received the military’s second-highest award behind the Medal of Honor.
When Swenson returned home and found out what happened he immediately contacted the CID demanding explanations. Shortly after that Swenson traveled from Washington state to the CID’s headquarters in Virginia. The trip allowed Swenson “to express his frustrations,” directly, according to the letter from Reps. Hunter and Kinzinger. Swenson’s role as a witness ended shortly after his visit with the CID. When he left, the CID no longer considered him a potential witness in the allegations against Golsteyn.
It was another year and a half before the Army Secretary’s letter began to provide answers for how one of the country’s most decorated soldiers, in the midst of one controversy, was pulled into a second investigation.
By itself, the fact the Army’s CID questioned Swenson doesn’t prove that he was targeted for retribution. Special agents’ job is to talk to whoever lands in the path of their investigation. But Army leadership was sufficiently convinced of its missteps to issue several letters of apology for their handling of the case. One letter went to Swenson’s neighbors assuring them that, despite any impression they might have been give to the contrary, he was not implicated in any crimes. A second letter was addressed to Swenson himself.
The Secretary of the Army’s public affairs office referred questions for this story to the CID. Reached for comment, the CID declined to answer questions but provided the following statement: “CID investigates allegations of criminality by Soldiers in peace and war. We have previously confirmed an investigation involving MAJ Golsteyn and we’ve nothing more to add.”
In his letter from January 2013, McHugh states unequivocally that when agents “attempted to interview Mr. Swenson, CID was not aware that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor.” McHugh further states that senior army leadership were not aware that Swenson was being interviewed. On the key question posed by Hunter and Kizinger, whether Swenson’s connection to the investigation was manufactured as a form of payback, the Army Secretary issued a flat denial.
Investigators questioning witnesses are not known to prize courteousness. It’s possible that Swenson, pulled into the investigation by a tenuous connection, was treated tactlessly not out of a vendetta but as matter of course.
The dispute over Swenson’s Medal of Honor and the decision to send agents to question him should not be related. Military awards don’t make criminal investigations voluntary matters. But nothing about Swenson’s relationship with the Army has followed a standard script.
He was nominated for the Medal of Honor in September 2009 and awarded it in October 2013. In the interim, Swenson lashed out at his superior officers.
In an interview after the Battle of Gangal, where the death count ran to five Americans, 12 Afghan soldiers, and one interpreter, Swenson blasted senior officers he said denied him fire support in the heat of fighting.
“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC [tactical operations center], why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” Swenson told investigators, according to redacted documents reviewed by Military Times. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander. I want that fucker, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that fucker.”
In the aftermath of the battle, as Swenson contested the military’s version of events, his award paperwork disappeared. According to the second official investigation conducted into Swenson’s award, his paperwork was lost in the Army’s computer system for 19 months.
The same issue that dogged Swenson’s award nomination—the politicization of proceedings that need to be impartial to be credible—are raised by the 2012 investigation that sent agents to his house on the basis of an Amazon review.
Today Swenson is back in the active Army. He quietly rejoined months after receiving the Medal of Honor and has since shunned publicity.
Writing in The Daily Beast, Army veteran Matt Gallagher called Swenson “brave, disillusioned, resolute.” Swenson had become an icon, Gallagher wrote, “not just because of his actions in Afghanistan, but also through his actions after.”