Former Army Capt. Will Swenson, center in red tie, is shown Sept. 15 at a White House ceremony where Dakota Meyer was presented the Medal of Honor by President Obama. Swenson is now being considered for the Medal of Honor, according to an officer who was with Task Force Mountain Warrior, the brigade that oversaw Swenson's unit during the 2009 battle at Ganjgal. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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A former Army captain has been recommended for the Medal of Honor, having played a vital role two years ago countering an ambush in eastern Afghanistan and braving enemy fire to help retrieve the bodies of three fallen Marines and a corpsman.
Will Swenson, who left active duty in February, was put up for the nation's highest combat valor award for his actions during the Sept. 8, 2009, battle in the remote village of Ganjgal, according to an officer who was with Task Force Mountain Warrior, the brigade that oversaw Swenson's unit.
Swenson worked alongside then-Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who received the Medal of Honor on Thursday for actions in the same battle. Swenson was at the White House for that ceremony.
If Swenson is awarded the Medal of Honor, it would mark the first time two service members received it for the same battle since the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. The actions in that firefight were outlined in the movie and book "Black Hawk Down."
Approval of Swenson's award had apparently stalled, but it received new scrutiny last month by Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. The second look came after rampant speculation as to why Swenson had not received an award for valor.
Meyer is at least the ninth member of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8 to receive a Bronze Star with ‘V' device or greater for heroism during the battle. He told Military Times recently that it is "ridiculous" Swenson hadn't receive some form of recognition.
"I'll put it this way," said Meyer, now a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be alive today."
Allen, the first Marine to lead coalition efforts in the 10-year-old war, took a personal interest in the Ganjgal ambush, according to The Journal's report. The record of the battle was reopened in August, and "given the four-star general's personal interest, sworn statements attesting to Capt. Swenson's valor were quickly found."
"Gen. Allen has since forwarded a Medal of Honor recommendation, saying it was the right thing to do despite a lapse of two years," the report said.
It's not clear what caused the delay, or where the recommendation is in the approval process. Any recommendation would need to be approved by Army Secretary John McHugh, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and President Obama.
Swenson could not be reached for comment, nor could a spokesman for Allen's command in Afghanistan.
He and Meyer worked under heavy enemy fire to recover the four men, who had gone missing in the battle. Uncertain whether they were all dead, Meyer charged through enemy fire alone and on foot to find them. He discovered them shot to death in a hillside trench at the outskirts of the village. Swenson assisted him in carrying the bodies and gear back to their Humvee.
Meyer and Swenson braved enemy fire repeatedly while working to save other U.S. and Afghan forces, even after Army officers at a nearby tactical operations center repeatedly denied their requests for fire support. 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.
Swenson was a member of 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kan., and deployed to oversee the training of Afghan border police in Sarkani district, Kunar province. A Ranger School graduate with previous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, he had participated in the mission's planning, and was assured fire support would be available if things turned ugly.
When Swenson was asked about the incident by military investigators, he unloaded, criticizing the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers who didn't send help and the second-guessing he experienced when 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 fer, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that fer."
Swenson added that he had been second-guessed on previous occasions, and was frustrated by a complicated process to clear fires, even under duress.
"I always get these crazy messages saying that, ‘Hey, brigade is saying that you can't see the target,'" Swenson told investigators. "Brigade, you're in Jalalabad. F you, you know? I am staring at the target. ... I just get the craziest things on the radio sometimes. Just people second guessing. If I am willing to put my initials on it, I understand the importance of making sure the rounds hit where they are supposed to hit. I understand the consequences of civilian casualties."
The firefight lasted at least six hours, beginning shortly after dawn. Three Army officers with Task Force Chosin, a unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y. were later cited following the investigation for "negligent" leadership leading "directly to the loss of life" on the battlefield.
Killed in the battle were four members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8. They are 1st Lt. http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-1st-lt-michael-e-johnson/4273162">Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-gunnery-sgt-edwin-w-johnson-jr/4273159">Edwin Johnson, Staff Sgt. http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-gunnery-sgt-aaron-m-kenefick/4273164">Aaron Kenefick and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class http://militarytimes.com/valor/navy-hospital-corpsman-3rd-class-james-r-layton/4271416">James Layton.
At least eight Afghan troops and an interpreter also were killed in the battle. Three Americans survived wounds sustained that day, but one of them Army Sgt. 1st Class http://militarytimes.com/valor/army-sgt-1st-class-kenneth-w-westbrook/4321485">Kenneth Westbrook died a month later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center of complications from his injuries.
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