National Geographic Channel’s new series “No Man Left Behind” which premieres Tuesday June, 28th at 9/8c takes viewers on a harrowing, inspiring journey into real-world combat situations, revealing the lengths of human heroism and the incredible bonds that exist between soldiers on the battlefield. The soldiers themselves recount their stories of survival, taking us inside their struggles and victories like never before. And “No Man Left Behind” gives an intimate glimpse into these heroes’ lives at home and the difficulties they face in readjusting to life outside of a combat zone. In this piece, we take a similar look at the intense battle of Ganjgul, Afghanistan, featuring interviews and multimedia elements to tell the real story of what happened on the ground.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 8, 2009, before the first of the sun’s rays began to creep above the mountainous horizon of eastern Afghanistan, U.S. Army Captain William D. Swenson set off on foot from the U.S. base in Shakani. Alongside him marched more than 100 coalition soldiers, Afghan troops, and border police officers, all heading toward the tiny village of Ganjgal in the rolling hills of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, more than 100 miles northeast of Kabul.
The men walked softly, each step a calculated decision. IEDs were rare in this area, but nobody was willing to lose a leg or even his life for the sake of a casual misstep.
Swenson was supporting the 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry, a unit leading a small contingent of Afghan Border Police officers as part of the ABP Mentor Team, designed to help Afghan authorities learn from American military training and secure the country’s volatile borders more effectively. A unit of Marines was also leading a Marine-embedded training team on that fateful morning, and the two squads worked well together.
Having already served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Captain Swenson was no stranger to the subtleties of working with the Afghan forces.
“With the Afghans, one cannot overtly lead,” Swenson says. “They are their own military, independently run by their own leadership, but you can also influence them with advice and your presence.”
Despite his knowledge of the local political landscape and his considerable combat experience, Swenson could not have foreseen the tragic events that were about to unfold.
The mission—codenamed Operation Buri Booza II—was like dozens of others the U.S. military had conducted in the region. The 10th Mountain Division and the Marines’ embedded training team were to lead the Afghan Border Police to Ganjgal, nestled deep amongst steep hillsides and narrow valleys. Elders at the village had sought the ABP’s guidance regarding possible improvements that could be made to Ganjgal’s ailing mosque.
As daylight began to illuminate the dusty Ganjgal Valley, Captain Swenson and the Afghan forces continued their slow march. The soldiers soon reached an observational rally point a short distance from the village, where the group divided into two groups: one led by coalition forces and members of the Afghan National Security Forces, charged with establishing supporting positions north and south of the village, and the other led by Captain Swenson and his friend, Sergeant 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, which continued on toward Ganjgal.
The 10th Mountain Division had received no intel suggesting an insurgent threat in the area, yet Swenson and Westbrook never took their eyes off the approaching village. Swenson knew a frontal attack was unlikely, yet he couldn’t discount the possibility. Leaving, however, could be a very different story.
“The valley is notorious for welcoming you in, and your farewell present is always fire—always,” Swenson says.
Swenson’s team and the others had almost reached the village when, in an instant, all of the lights in the village went dark.
They had walked into a trap.
‘A Controlled Withdrawal’
The narrow valley erupted into gunfire. Taliban fighters armed with AK-47 rifles opened fire on the column of troops approaching the village, from unseen positions around the village perimeter. Approximately 60 Taliban fighters had managed to infiltrate the valley unseen through concealed trenches north and south of Ganjgal.
Eyewitnesses who saw the attack would later claim that women and children from the village were carrying weapons and ammunition to the entrenched Taliban fighters. In addition, several U.S. Army officers said they suspected the Taliban had been tipped off about the coalition’s plans in advance, either by local Taliban sympathizers or by the village elders themselves. According to some soldiers, nobody could be trusted.
“Whatever we do always leaks,” says Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, Operations Officer of the 3rd Marine Division’s Marine training team. “You can’t trust even some of their soldiers or officers.”
Scrambling to avoid the hail of bullets, the coalition forces took whatever shelter they could find and returned fire.
It was at this point that things began to get much worse.
The decision was made to withdraw. However, the coalition forces had been completely blindsided and were taking small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on three sides, making a tactical withdrawal almost impossible. To make matters worse, artillery support was out of the question—a weakness the enemy seized upon to secure its growing advantage.
“The enemy realized they were gaining the initiative and that our fires were ineffective,” Swenson says. “We called in artillery, but we couldn’t put it where we wanted to, and they saw that as a deficiency on our part and exploited it.”
Pinned down by RPGs and now Taliban artillery fire, the situation looked bleak. Communications with the forward team of Marines and their interpreter had been lost. Dozens of Afghan soldiers and Border Police officers had suffered life-threatening injuries, their cries for help drowned out by the pounding boom of incoming artillery shells and the muffled explosions of rocket-propelled grenades. Swenson knew that a cloud of white phosphorous could provide the cover he and his comrades so desperately needed, and so he radioed command to request air support.
Captain Swenson was denied.
Few Choices, Less Time
Swenson was told that phosphorus was impossible, as the drop zone was too close to a populated civilian area. The closest point at which phosphorous could be deployed was 400 meters away, where it would offer no cover—or possibility of escape—for the trapped soldiers.
With few choices and less time, Captain Swenson faced an agonizing decision.
“We were going to be overrun, so we started a controlled withdrawal, but it was not the decision we wanted to make because we still knew we had the Marines up ahead,” says Swenson. “We didn’t know where and were hoping, just hoping, they’d taken cover inside a building and stayed there, thus the break in communication. We just didn’t know, but what we did know was that we’d be no good to them where we were, so we began our withdrawal, with additional casualties.”
Sadly, the break in communication with the forward team of Marines was not due to taking cover in a prolonged firefight; their position had been overrun by Taliban fighters. The Marines fought bravely but were eventually overcome. The Taliban stripped them of all useful supplies and ammunition before leaving their bodies for the vultures.
The cacophony was almost deafening. With the enemy pressing toward them on three sides, Swenson and his comrades knew they had to do something, or they would not survive the onslaught. Major Kevin Williams, leader of the Marines’ Tactical Action Center that had come under intense fire at the beginning of the firefight, had been shot in the arm. Blood ran down First Sergeant Christopher Garza’s face, both of his eardrums ruptured by the concussive force of a rocket-propelled grenade. Dozens of Afghan Border Police officers took shelter from enemy fire, lying bleeding on the dusty ground. Swenson knew he had to act, but with no clear escape, time was running out.
It was at this moment that Captain Swenson realized that his friend, Sergeant Westbrook, had been isolated by the enemy and suffered a chest wound. Westbrook lay prone, blood seeping from his chest, right in the middle of the kill zone, every moment one step closer to death in the brutal heat of the Afghan desert.
Selfless Acts of Bravery
Without hesitation, Captain Swenson, 1st Lieutenant Fabayo, and Sergeant Garza focused their fire on the insurgents embedded nearby, moving quickly to Sergeant Westbrook’s position. With grim determination, Sergeant Garza fought heroically in spite of his injuries, laying down suppressing fire and covering Captain Swenson’s advance. Any of the three men could have been cut down by enemy fire at any moment, yet the soldiers fought on with a steadfast resolution to reach their fallen comrade.
Although the men had crossed only fifty feet of open space, they eventually reached Sergeant Westbrook. Captain Swenson coordinated with air support units via radio and administered vital first aid to his injured friend, while Major Williams and Sergeant Garza laid down covering fire. Swenson managed to staunch the bleeding from Westbrook’s wound, but his attention was focused solely on saving the life of his friend and comrade.
Distracted, Captain Swenson did not see the insurgent move toward him and the others, gesturing for the Americans’ surrender.
Lieutenant Fabayo did see the Taliban fighter approaching them. Fabayo captured Swenson’s attention, and called out to him for guidance.
Swenson put down his radio, stopped tending to his friend’s wounds, and paused momentarily before throwing a hand grenade at the insurgent.
A Rallying Cry
The Taliban fighter dived for cover from the grenade, but that wasn’t the only effect that Captain Swenson’s refusal to surrender had on the battle. Galvanized by Swenson’s heroic act of defiance, the Afghan forces and American soldiers fought with renewed vigor, forcing the enemy combatants to retreat out of grenade range. Shortly after the coalition went back on the offensive, the crucial air support that Captain Swenson had called in arrived, bringing the soldiers much-needed munitions.
The arrival of the OH-58 Kiowa attack helicopters signified a crucial turning point in the battle. As the insurgent forces scattered, Captain Swenson and his comrades were finally able to move Sergeant Westbrook to a safer location for medical evacuation via a waiting Black Hawk helicopter.
For many soldiers, this would have been the end of the battle: a hard-won fight for survival that pushed the combat skills of even the most battle-hardened veterans to their very limits.
For Captain Swenson, however, there was still work to be done.
After securing his friend into the Black Hawk, Captain Swenson and Lieutenant Fabayo commandeered a nearby Ford Ranger pickup belonging to the Afghan Border Police. The vehicle lacked armor to deflect small-arms fire, yet the two men drove back into the kill zone to extract those soldiers who lay wounded on the battlefield.
Swenson and Fabayo returned to the kill zone twice to save the lives of their comrades, knowing full well the dangers of operating an unarmored vehicle in an active combat zone. The Taliban had fallen back, but as Swenson had observed, there were no guarantees that the Taliban would allow them to leave the valley with their lives.
After Swenson and Fabayo returned from the kill zone a second time, word came down from the combat search and rescue team that the bodies of the Marines who had been overrun in the open had been spotted. The order was given for the CSAR air unit to set down near the courtyard area where the Marines had fallen, but the helicopter was forced almost immediately to fall back due to intense RPG fire near the landing zone.
Swenson ordered that the Marines’ position be marked by smoke grenades to allow for easier identification by a ground-based recovery team.
He was going in.
No Man Left Behind
Until that point, an armored Humvee had been used to ferry the wounded from the battlefield to the medevac extraction point. Swenson, aided by Marines Staff Sergeant Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, Corporal Dakota Meyer, and Lieutenant Fabayo, set off in the armored Humvee toward the column of smoke rising in the distance.
The scout helicopters patrolled the skies, rooting out insurgent positions from around the village, but Swenson’s Humvee was still taking heavy fire from nearby fighters. When the vehicle finally reached the Marines’ position, Lieutenant Fabayo provided covering fire from the M240 machine gun mounted on the Humvee’s exterior to allow Swenson and the others to remove the Marines’ bodies from the bottom of a deep trench. They had done it.
On October 15, 2013, four years after the Battle of Ganjgal, Captain Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade the U.S. military can bestow upon a serviceman or woman for bravery and heroism in the line of duty.
President Barack Obama awarded Captain Swenson with his medal personally, before praising the actions of Swenson and his comrades.
“Moments like this, Americans like Will, remind us what our country can be at its best—-a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another, not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard,” said President Obama. “Especially when it’s hard. Will, you’re an example—to everyone in this city, to our whole country—of the professionalism and patriotism we should strive for—whether we wear the uniform or not.”
As President Obama observed, Captain William Swenson is a reminder of the courage, heroism, and professionalism that servicemen and women of the United States military exhibit every day, in theaters of war around the world.
Captain Swenson’s courage will be familiar to every soldier who has risked their life to save a fallen comrade, but his heroism in the face of overwhelming danger is a valuable lesson to us all—whether we wear the uniform or not.
New series of No Man Left Behind premieres Tuesday, June 28 at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.