Army Capt. Will Swenson and Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer are disputing Meyer's account of the Battle of Ganjgal. (File photos)
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Army Capt. Will Swenson and Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer fought side-by-side in a vicious 2009 battle in Afghanistan, working together to recover the bodies of four U.S. service members who were slain on the battlefield and stripped of their weapons and armor.
Both men have been recognized by the military for their heroism. As a sergeant, Meyer became in 2011 the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the Medal of Honor, recognized for braving enemy fire repeatedly to save service members trapped in a hail of gunfire. Swenson will receive the nation's top valor award Tuesday in a White House ceremony, following a long delay and Meyer lobbying publicly on the Army officer's behalf.
But a rift between the two war heroes exists, according to a front-page Washington Post story published Sunday. Swenson "remains skeptical of Meyer and the publicity he has sought," and "engaged in a lengthy and bitter dispute with the military over the narrative of one of the Afghan war's most notorious firefights." The Army officer, who left active duty in 2011, pushed the service to produce a website outlining the battle, and told the Post it "is not going to mutually support other stories" namely, Meyer's.
"Are you familiar with Pyrrhic victories?" Swenson, 34, told the Post, using a term that originated in Greek history to describe a victory that is so costly, it is tantamount to a loss. "That's what I specialize in."
Three Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in the battle, which began around dawn Sept. 8, 2009, when somewhere between 60 and 100 insurgents launched a vicious U-shaped ambush on a patrol that included U.S. Marines and soldiers and the Afghan army and police units they were training. Swenson's senior enlisted adviser on trip, Sgt 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, sustained gunshot wounds and died about a month later.
The ambush's effects were amplified by gaffes by officers in a nearby tactical operations center, a military investigation later found. They repeatedly denied troops on the ground fire support and timely air support and failed to convey the urgency of the situation to high levels of command, according to military documents obtained by Marine Corps Times. Two officers later received letters of reprimand, officials said.
Seemingly at the heart of the disagreement between Meyer and Swenson is a 2011 narrative summary of the battle produced by the Marine Corps Division of Public Affairs. It credits Meyer, now 25, with saving 13 U.S. service members and 23 Afghan forces during the fierce firefight while making five trips into the Ganjgal Valley, in Kunar province, under heavy enemy fire. It was widely used by the media in coverage of Meyer's award.
The accuracy of the narrative was first questioned in late 2011 in a McClatchy Newspapers investigative report. It was written by Jonathan Landay, a journalist who was embedded with U.S. forces that day and witnessed the first 90 minutes of a six-hour battle. Landay alleged that while Meyer deserved the Medal of Honor, aspects of the Corps' account of events were "untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated." Among other details, his story pointed out that only 11 U.S. service members actually were in the valley that day, four of whom died. Others were posted farther away, but faced less danger and did not need to be rescued.
The Corps' narrative summary of the battle was compiled by a small team of Marines, led by Col. Chris Hughes, who oversaw much of the Corps' public affairs effort to support Meyer in the weeks leading up to his September 2011 ceremony at the White House. Marine officials have acknowledged the summary wasn't vetted as carefully as Meyer's award citation, but nevertheless stood by the its accuracy.
Killed in the battle were Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. All were members of Meyer's unit, Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan. About a dozen Afghan soldiers also were killed during the battle, and Westbrook died the following month at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington due to complications from a blood transfusion.
Meyer declined to comment Sunday on many aspects of the Post's story, but pointed out he repeatedly lobbied for the captain to receive the Medal of Honor. He published a book, "Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War," with author Bing West last year that outlined the battle and again questioned why Swenson had not received the award already.
"It has never been about me. I do not deserve the Medal of the Honor, and I've said that all along," Meyer said in a phone interview. Of Swenson, he added: "I hope he finds peace, and if he ever needs anything he can call me."
Meyer's book says he sent a letter to the White House shortly after receiving the Medal of Honor urging officials there to take a longer look at Swenson's heroism. The captain, according to Meyer's letter, "was the centerpiece for command and control in a raging firefight that never died down."
"Swenson controlled all the helos. He picked out targets and kept situational awareness, radioing cardinal directions and distances," Meyer's letter said. "Not everyone can do that when bullets are continuously hitting the side of your truck. Swenson was not the senior commander; he just took over and everyone deferred to him. 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."
Meyer's book points out that Combined Joint Task Force 82, commanded by then-Army Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, was charged with handling Swenson's Medal of Honor packet while the investigations were ongoing in 2009. The packet "had vanished into thin air, forgotten by everybody in the chain of command," the book said. It suggests Swenson symbolizes Ganjgal and the battle "conveyed the wrong message: failure to support advisors, failure to provide artillery support, failure to deliver timely air support, et cetera."
Marine Gen. John Allen, then the top commander in Afghanistan, took an interest in the case in summer 2011 and eventually endorsed Swenson's packet. The White House announced last month that Swenson would receive the Medal of Honor.
Meyer's book credited Swenson as a "great help and careful reader." However, he acknowledged in an interview last year that they rarely spoke.
"The thing is, most of these people I didn't know before the battle," he told Marine Corps Times. "So now after, it's like, the battle brings you close, but it's not like we knew each other before, you know?"
Meyer told Marine Corps Times last year that he feels like has "antagonists" who have questioned his actions on the battlefield, and acknowledged Landay is an example.
"The way I look at it is him writing on me good, bad, whatever he wants to write that is a freedom that all the guys in Ganjgal died for that day. The sacrifices they paid," Meyer said. "If he wants to use what those guys sacrificed so much for to write negative articles, and that's how he wants to use his freedom, do it."
Landay has stood by his reporting. He sat with Swenson this April at Fort Benning, Ga., as the Army posthumously awarded Westbrook the Silver Star, the nation's third highest award in recognizing combat valor. In the Post article, Landay called Swenson "one of the most upstanding and moral men I have met in my life."
Swenson has kept a low profile since the battle. In fact, an Army official said last week that while he had previously agreed to do interviews ahead of his ceremony, he changed his mind. An interview scheduled Thursday with this reporter was canceled as a result.
The Gold Star families of those lost in the battle had mixed feelings about the Post's story. Many of them were invited to attend Swenson's ceremony, something they were not allowed to do when Meyer received the Medal of Honor two years ago.
Charlene Westbrook, who maintains a close relationship with Swenson, said she was glad to see Swenson air his feelings publicly.
"The truth is finally coming out," she told Marine Corps Times. "There's no inflation or dramatization in what [Swenson] said."
But two other Gold Star family members from the battle expressed sadness Sunday at perceived attacks on Meyer. Susan Price, Kenefick's mother, said she speaks to Meyer on the phone occasionally, and was frustrated to see the same questions raised about Meyer's heroism again. Regardless of the number of people he pulled from the kill zone, she said, it is undisputed he deserves the Medal of Honor.
"Give this kid a break," she said. "The little specifics don't matter to us, the people who lost our children that day. What Dakota did was a gift."
Brent Layton, the fallen corpsman's father, said he is traveling to Washington to honor Swenson. He doesn't understand the criticism of Meyer, however.
"I'm standing in for James," he said of his son. "It's not a time to be bad-mouthing anyone."
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