Validation Of Valor

Posted on October 16, 2013

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There’s no ‘back down’ in this Medal of Honor winner.

Just yesterday I heard the story of retired Army Captain William Swenson and his late in coming award of the Medal of Honor, earned in a tense combat mission, in Afghanistan in 2009, judged by many, to be one of the most, if not the most intense ever in that region. Because the outline of the story were gripping, I hunted down a handful of write-ups on the Battle of Ganjgal, and in the process, not only uncovered details that have only sparsely been alluded to, but a rare clip of raw video of one segment of the event as it unfolded. 

One of my initial reactions in reading about the ceremony presenting the medal at the White House, was disdain that a counterfeit Commander In Chief was once again posturing as a champion of America and the armed forces. I resigned myself to see it not as Obama, but as the office of the Presidency conferring the award.

Despite Obama exploiting Captain Swenson’s better late than never recognition – the circumstances behind the delay carry some damaging disclosures with regard to how our soldiers were hampered in their duties by external political control of their mission. None of these will be unfamiliar to veterans of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stars and Stripes comments:

“That’s because Swenson’s heroism at the Battle of Ganjgal in September 2009 has already been overshadowed by the mistakes of his superiors and bureaucratic delays. The former soldier waited more than four years for his recognition, much to the chagrin of his friends and military advocates.

“Swenson, who left the Army in 2011, is the sixth living Medal of Honor recipient for action in Afghanistan, and the second for that fight in the Ganjgal Valley. Former Marine Dakota Meyer was awarded the medal two years ago for his part of that fight, dodging gunfire in another part of the steep terrain before meeting up with Swenson for the final push against the enemy.

“Swenson declined media interviews in the lead-up to the White House ceremony and has been mostly silent since the battle. In an Army release, he called the medal an honor for ‘those I served with’ and ‘my family and my teammates.’ “

Jonathan Landay, embedded reporter with the McClatchy News service, describes how that day, September 8th, 2009 – unfolded for a combined force of 60 Afghan soldiers, 20 border police officers, 13 Marine and U.S. Army trainers headed for a village in the Ganjgal Valley:

The operation, proposed by the Afghan army and refined by the U.S. trainers, called for the Afghans to search Ganjgal for weapons and hold a meeting with the elders to discuss the establishment of police patrols. The elders had insisted that Afghans perform the sweep. The Americans were there to give advice and call for air and artillery support if required. 

Dawn was breaking by the time we alighted for a mile-long walk up a wash of gravel, rock and boulders which winds up to Ganjgal, some 60 rock-walled compounds perched high up the terraced slopes at the eastern end of the valley, six miles from the Pakistani border.

After dismounting from their caravan of Humvees, some of the advancing troops who started the steep climb up the valley and into the village, suspected something was amiss when they noticed that as they were advancing, that lights in the village suddenly went dark. “Whatever we do always leaks,” said Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, the operations officer from the 3rd Marine Division who coordinated the training of the Afghan troops. “You can’t trust even some of their soldiers or officers.”

It wasn’t too much later – around 5:30AM, when the team came under fire, ambushed by a 50 plus contingent of Taliban insurgents, a crack fighting unit, compared to most of the units with whom American forces typically engaged. A ‘storm’ – as Landay describes it, of sniper and automatic rifle fire from the insurgents, combined with RPG’s and mortars suddenly came raining down, while executing a flanking maneuver to capitalize on the exposed position of the Americans and Afghan troops. For the next twenty minutes, Captain Swenson led the Afghan Border Police soldiers under his command, in returning fire, while attempting to solicit artillery and aviation support from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. That support was not forthcoming, as Landay details:

The responses came back: No helicopters were available. “This is unbelievable. We have a platoon (of Afghan army) out there and we’ve got no Hotel Echo,” Swenson shouted above the din of gunfire, using the military acronym for high explosive artillery shells. “We’re pinned down.” 

The insurgents were firing from inside the village and from positions in the hills immediately behind it and to either side. Judging from the angles of the ricochets, several appeared to be trying to outflank us to get better shots. “What are you going to do?” Maj. Talib, the operations officer of the Afghan army unit, asked Maj. Williams through his translator. 

“We are getting air,” Williams replied.  “What are we going to do?” Talib repeated. “We are getting air,” Williams replied again, perhaps knowing that none was available but hoping to quiet Talib.

Realizing that they were outnumbered and in jeopardy of being wiped out, due to their exposed positions, Swenson sought to execute the only tactic imaginable in the circumstance – artillery fired smoke rounds as a visual cover for a retreat. Word came back over the radio. “They don’t have any smoke. They only have Willy Pete,” Swenson reported, referring to white phosphorus rounds that spew smoke. A deadly and intense 50 minutes crawled by until the valley was blanketed in ‘Willy Pete’ and Fabayo and Swenson fired covering volleys to allow the other soldiers to evacuate to slightly more defensible positions.

Landay, the journalist with McClatchy, was caught behind and before he made a mad scramble to the next retreat position, was nearly hit by a sniper round. When he did reunite with Swenson, it was to discover Swenson attending to two wounded comrades, including Kenneth Westbrook, while attempting to arrange for medical assistance. Realizing that Westbrook was out of action and that their small contingent was now short at least one defender, Landay was handed Westbrook’s M-4 carbine and told that he may need to use it.

When the Taliban sent a couple of their number down an embankment towards Capt. Swenson’s position to deliver an ultimatum of surrender or be destroyed, Swenson magnificently displayed his “I’ll see you in Hell” defiance by responding with the toss of a hand grenade.

It wasn’t until approximately 7AM that some HC support arrived and began firing into the hillsides that the surviving ground forces were able to retreat further out of the kill zone – a real one, not a PlayStation2 game. But a number of troops from the combined team were unaccounted for, wounded or killed in the firefight. This was when Swenson, 21 year old Marine Colonel Dakota Meyer, Captain Fabayo and  Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, all dismissed concerns for personal safety to attempt the rescue of the other Afghan troops not able to retreat and in the process, recover the bodies of three Marines, a Navy corpsman and their Afghan interpreter, who were found in a deep trench.

Reportedly, Fabayo wanted Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez to stay put, making a judgment call that two more likely casualties would possibly complicate the overall situation. They would have none of it and purposed themselves resolutely to run headlong into withering enemy fire to retrieve their fallen comrades or die trying.

Here, is a length of raw footage captured on the helmet cams of the crew members of the MedEvac helicopters. In it you see Capt. Swenson directing efforts to evacuate the injured, including Sergeant Kenneth Westbrook, father of 3, who sustained multiple wounds, the most critical of which, was a bullet in the throat.

Sgt. Kevin Durst, crew chief of the MedEvac HC in this video, describes the overall situation he was responding to. “Everyone was taking fire, the whole valley was just a giant ambush, it was crazy.”

At around 4 minutes and 12 seconds into the video, you saw Swenson secure Sgt. Westbrook, give him a brotherly kiss on the forehead and whisper reassuring words to his friend. Westbrook survived the flight to medical facilities, but he and Swenson were never to see one another again. Westbrook succumbed to his injuries 29 days later, despite Army physicians attempts to save him.

Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor and received it on September 15th of 2011. As the Marine Corps Times reports:

“Swenson braved enemy fire on Sept. 8, 2009, with Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who will receive the nation’s top valor award Thursday at the White House. Meyer, now a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve, told Marine Corps Times recently that it was “ridiculous” Swenson already hadn’t received some form of valor award.  “I’ll put it this way,” the outspoken Meyer said in an interview. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

The Times notes that Meyer and Swenson already had braved enemy fire repeatedly in the battle while working to save other U.S. and Afghan forces, even after Army officers at a nearby tactical operations center repeatedly denied fire support they requested. On the last trip into the village to get the bodies, they rode a Humvee under fire with Marine 1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo and Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, both of whom received the Navy Cross in June for their actions that day.

There was a reason that Swenson, a member of the Army’s 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kansas, was passed up for the nomination for the award initially. He ruffled feathers among some of the brass, by daring to tell the truth during an after action investigation, about the withholding of support by the command staff at a nearby Tactical Operations Center (TOC). The Marine Times further outlines:

“Interviewed for the subsequent investigation, he unloaded on the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers who didn’t send help and the second-guessing he experienced requesting fire support, according to military documents. His name is redacted, but Military Times determined which statements he made based on the actions and roles described in interview transcripts. 

“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?” Swenson told investigators. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander I want that f—er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f—er.” Swenson added that he had been second-guessed on previous occasions, and was frustrated by a complicated process to clear fires, even under duress.”

Nothing illustrates my reluctance to see our military be exploited in global conflicts where the national interest is not obvious and the objectives of the mission are not clearly defined, more than a situation like this, where soldiers are given a combat assignment and deployed with a ball and chain shacked to their ankles. Politically dictated rules of engagement are absurd in tribal enclaves where resisting opposition troops is a community effort, rendering everyone but the smallest children as enemy combatants.

Both Swenson and Meyer are more than deserving of their medals. I liken the two to diamonds. In that comparison, Swenson is a slightly finer cut gem with a few more facets. Sad to say, in many circles, leaders are less sought after than are conformists, who will keep their heads below the radar screen, tell superiors what they expect to hear and not give voice to a principal. Such is the case with Captain Swenson, who has not been able to find career work since leaving the Army in 2011. Swenson is a leader.

There’s got to be a place for his unalloyed brand of ‘American Exceptionalism’ out there, don’t you think?

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