President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor yesterday to former Army Captain William Swenson, the first Army officer since Vietnam to receive our nation’s highest military honor. The story of Swenson reveals a man who values truth and service, not just because of his actions in Afghanistan, but also through his actions after. Brave, disillusioned, resolute - in a variety of ways, Swenson personifies the best of the men and women who joined the military after 9/11 and then spent over a decade fighting two brushfire wars on the other side of the world.
“Like all great leaders, Swenson was a servant,” President Obama said yesterday. Throughout the White House ceremony and in subsequent interviews, Swenson maintained a stoic calm. Other than a set of hard eyes, he didn’t look or sound like a man who said the following after the Battle of Ganjgal in September 2009:
“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place? 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.”
Swenson was railing against his superiors’ refusal to approve his request for fire or air support during the fighting that claimed the lives of five U.S. service members and eight Afghan soldiers. Many company-level leaders who have served on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan can identify with Swenson’s anger and frustration, myself included. Disconnect between military brass and those fighting on the ground is nothing new, of course, and Iraq and Afghanistan proved no exception, due to those wars’ reliance on decentralization and small unit maneuvering. There was often a generational disconnect in these frictions as well, with the senior brass having joined a peace time force, far different than those whose call to service began with the certainty of war.
Much of who Swenson is remains a mystery, due to a reported monastic lifestyle, but for a certain breed of new veteran, he has become a symbol of everything our service meant and how it resonates in our postwar lives.
“When I first read about [Ganjgal], I put myself in Swenson’s shoes, and became just as angry as he was, just as furious,” former Army officer Daniel Feehan said. Feehan deployed to Iraq twice and is currently a White House Fellow. “It was a mission that demanded flexibility,” he said, referring to both wars. “But the military is not the most flexible organization. This battle, and what happened to Swenson after, is pretty symbolic of the post-9/11 [military.]”
It seems quaint now, but in the days and months following 9/11, thousands of young men and women who’d never considered military service began showing up to recruiters’ offices. “It was crazy,” one military recruiter told me at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn some years ago. “We’d show up in the morning and there’d be a line waiting for us. Most of them were smart, had done their research. Never seen anything like it.” Swenson, the son of two college professors, was less an exception than an early and supreme embodiment of the new type volunteering for military service. Fresh faces and idealistic minds, who in a different world would’ve become teachers or Peace Corps volunteers, instead became soldiers and sailors; the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq a hazy portent that awaited.
Swenson completed Officer Candidate School in September 2002 and commissioned into the infantry. He’d have been 23 at the time, and while most of his peers spent the next decade navigating graduate schools and cocktail parties, Swenson deployed to war – over and over again, three times total, once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, his service spanning almost the entirety of the post-2001 military ventures: Operation Mongoose, Mission Accomplished, Fallujah, the Surge, the Battle of Marja, anything and everything in between – beads on a string, independent of one another yet intrinsically linked, Swenson moving between life in America and life at war through it all.
Though there are conflicting reports as to what exactly happened that fateful day in the Ganjgal Valley in 2009, one thing that is both consistent and recurring in the various narratives is Swenson’s leadership. Dakota Meyer, the Marine corporal who received the Medal of Honor in 2011 for his actions in Ganjgal, wrote in his memoir that he sent a letter to the White House praising Swenson: “He just took over and everyone deferred to him,” Meyer wrote. “To the extent that anyone was in charge on the chaotic battlefield over the course of six or seven hours, it was Captain Will Swenson.”
Video evidence of Swenson’s valor in Ganjgal recently surfaced in video footage taken by a medevac helicopter that arrived in the midst of the Taliban ambush. It shows Swenson helping carry wounded Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook to the helicopter, then leaning down to kiss Westbrook on the forehead before returning to the still raging battle. Despite the efforts of Swenson and the medevac crew, Westbrook would ultimately succumb to his injuries a month later, in a U.S. hospital where he was able to spend his final days surrounded by his family.
“That kiss? He was trying to give his sergeant comfort, the last and only thing he could do in that moment,” Army Captain William Gehlen told me. Gehlen is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. “You always hear people say clichés like ‘No One Left Behind.’ But do they actually mean it? [Swenson] actually did it.”
All objective information suggests Swenson’s nomination for the Medal of Honor should’ve been smooth and clean. Unfortunately, the procedural side of the military is rarely either, especially when medals are involved. In my own experience, I saw soldiers who never left Forward Operating Bases awarded ostensible combat medals while men who spent fifteen months outside the wire went home with “Certificates of Achievement.” If an individual rubs one person in their chain-of-command the wrong way, award packets can and do disappear into the labyrinth of bureaucracy. Though it’s officially undetermined how Swenson’s first Medal of Honor nomination “vanished,” anyone who’s spent a day in uniform knows what happened – an administrative officer with a high rank and pristine uniform fed it to the shredder, making sure the electronic version disappeared, too. It’s as predicable as it is shameful.
“I joined for fairly altruistic reasons, like a lot of people in our generation,” Feehan said. “We found a pretty rigid chain-of-command, one that couldn’t take any criticism, and a lot of us got out. Massive amounts of talent were lost in the process.”
Deepening the stain on the army with regards to the Swenson saga is the fact that it took two Marines – General John Allen and Representative Duncan Hunter – to resurrect Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination and demand attention be paid to it. Considering there have been allegations that the Marines exaggerated Meyer’s exploits in the Ganjgal Valley in an effort to ensure his valor was properly recognized, the contrast to the army’s treatment of Swenson couldn’t be starker.
The concept of a “zero-defect” army has long been a joke among soldiers, the idea being that it is more important and better for one’s career to avoid mistakes and the ire of superiors than it is to strive for excellence. Whatever his reasons, Swenson didn’t feel like abiding by the unwritten rules of the zero-defect army after the Battle of Ganjgal, and someone(s), somewhere, held that against him.
Swenson left the army in 2011 “disenchanted,” according to Charlene Westbrook, Sergeant First Class Westbrook’s widow who keeps in close touch with her husband’s former officer. And in a rare interview with The Washington Post, Swenson made reference to “forced early retirement,” suggesting there’s more to the story than just another junior officer having had his fill of war and bureaucracy.
Feehan believes that yesterday’s award represents a breakthrough in terms of valor being recognized in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Swenson will be the first living officer to receive a Medal of Honor from these wars. “It’s more than just individual gallantry,” Feehan said. “It’s gallantry in leadership. And that matters, it matters a lot. It’s what these wars were about, small unit leaders performing under complex, unforgiving conditions.”
Seeing Swenson on stage with the President yesterday, part of me was glad that he didn’t cut his hair too short and kept his sideburns a bit overgrown, his heavy gaze leveled toward the television cameras for all to witness. The military brass, the politicians, the country needed to see the face of a generation of service members at its most raw and true. We need to realize that this is what happens to idealistic young people sent off to war, young people who are often more capable and faithful to the mission than the ones put in charge of them, young people who aren’t given the support or resources they were promised but still find a way.
We need to see and hear the guy who once said “I am the ground commander. I want that fucker, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that fucker.” Then we need to thank him, not just for his valor during a battle, but for his honesty after it. And then, then we need to know that Swenson recently submitted a packet to rejoin the active duty army, because he still wants to serve - not in spite of everything the last decade threw at him, but because of it.