Four Years Later, Army Hero Honored
This week, retired Army Capt. William Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during an intense firefight in Afghanistan in 2009.
His team was conducting meetings with village elders in the village of Ganjar, in Kunar Province, when they were ambushed.
Swenson was honored for risking his life several times to rescue fellow troops and recover bodies during the seven-hour battle.
Members of the MedEvac unit that came to rescue his team were wearing helmet cameras that captured Swenson’s actions. They also captured the moment he loaded his injured comrade, Sgt. First Class Kenneth Westbrook, into the helicopter and kissed him on the forehead.
“When you’re on the battlefield you don’t always remember the moments where your humanity comes through; you remember the moments you made the decision to move an element or call for fire on a specific position” Swenson told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “It showed a moment where I truly got to tell my former soldier, Sgt. First Class Westbrook, that he had done his job, and he was going home.”
Westbrook survived for a month, before he died. Westbrook’s wife attended Swenson’s medal ceremony.
“She had a month to spend with Ken, who for a while was on the mend,” Swenson said. “He was asking for a Heineken from time to time. I believe he was flirting with the nurses, so he was in high spirits. He had the opportunity to be with his family.”
Swenson was nominated for the Medal of Honor soon after the battle, but there was a delay in his receiving the medal.
At the ceremony, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel apologized for the delay.
But those close to Swenson feel the Medal was delayed because he had criticized superiors for failing to provide air support for for his troops during the battle.
“One can speculate all they like,” Swenson said. “The honor for me was being nominated for that award.”
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- William Swenson, retired Army Captain and Medal of Honor recepient.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
One of the most powerful moments of the week was seeing former Army Captain William Swenson awarded the Medal of Honor for risking his own life several times during an intense firefight in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley in September 2009. He was trying to save his fellow troops and recover the bodies of those who'd been killed in a Taliban ambush. You've probably seen the rescue. There's a helmet video from one of the helicopter pilots who came to carry out the wounded.
During Tuesday's ceremony, President Obama described the video.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In that video, as that helicopter touches down by a remote village, you see out of a cloud of dust an American soldier. He's without his helmet, standing in the open, exposing himself to enemy fire, standing watch over a severely wounded soldier. He helps carry that wounded soldier to the helicopter and places him inside. And then amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he does something unexpected. He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head, a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms.
YOUNG: You can see that video at hereandnow.org. We wanted to see how Captain William Swenson was doing at the end of this week of recognition and reflection. He joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. Welcome.
CAPTAIN WILLIAM SWENSON: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: So how are you doing?
SWENSON: It's been a whirlwind. It's been a very emotional week but a very positive one. I've had the opportunity to reconnect with a lot of my old friends and colleagues and meet new friends. It's been incredible.
YOUNG: Yeah. I imagine really complicated feelings as well. You've said you don't remember that very tender moment, a kiss to your fallen comrade. Now you've seen it. What does it bring out in you? Is it comforting? Is it painful? What...
SWENSON: It's certainly a mix of emotions. When you're on the battlefield, you don't always remember the moments where your humanity comes through. You remember the moments that you made the decision to move an element or call for fire on a specific position. What you generally don't remember are those moments that occur on the battlefield that sometimes other people capture. And seeing that video allowed me to go back to a time that I'd forgotten and would not have believed had occurred had it not been for that video. And it showed a moment where I truly got to tell my former soldier, Sergeant First Class Westbrook, that he had done his job and he was going home.
YOUNG: Yeah. Nice to know that you kept your humanity in the middle of that, you know, survival instinct.
SWENSON: In the military you're trained for a job and you react reflexively based upon your training and based upon decisions that you make. And just having that moment, I will always cherish it.
YOUNG: Well, Sergeant Kenneth Westbrook ultimately died, but he lived for a month. His wife was there at your ceremony. And your reflections on that? You know, some might be torn that he didn't survive, but on the other hand, you gave her a month she wouldn't have had.
SWENSON: She had a month to spend with Ken, who for a while was on the mend. He was asking for a Heineken from time to time. I believe he was flirting with the nurses, so he was in high spirits. And I think that he had the opportunity to be with his family. And regardless of the outcome, they had that opportunity.
YOUNG: Yeah. Your mission that day was to go to talk with local village elders. You were there with other soldiers, Marines, members of the Afghan army. This was four years ago. Terrible, terrible ambush by the Taliban. First of all, the president also said that because of this video, this helmet cam, this is one of the first times that Americans can really see what happens in combat, both the tenderness but the - just the sheer will on your part to save people, and just how ugly it is. Your thoughts on that, the fact that this is a video that's being viewed by thousands.
SWENSON: You look through photos of war in our history. You look at the pictures of the Civil War, the First World War, Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, and you can read all the books you like. But what ultimately ties us to those battlefields are those iconic images, I believe. And in this instance, that video for me is iconic. It's important to me, but it does give the American people an opportunity to see what we do on the battlefield, to see what a team looks like, to see what we are capable of, even in the worst of situations.
YOUNG: That's former Army Captain William Swenson, who this week received the Medal of Honor. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. And Will, you were nominated for the medal right after that battle in Afghanistan. But you're only now receiving it. On Wednesday at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Hagel apologized for that delay. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We're sorry that you and your family had to endure through that, but you did and you handled it right.
YOUNG: Well, and let's talk about a little bit of what happened here. You had been critical of your higher ups after that battle. You didn't think you got enough air or artillery support. You also had disagreed with a marine who received a Medal of Honor in 2011 for that same battle. Just felt you had a different take on what happened that day than he did. So you'd spoken out. Others have speculated that that's why your award was delayed. What do you think?
SWENSON: One can speculate all they like. The honor, truly, for me was just being nominated for the award. I didn't have any need or interest in seeing it come to fruition. And there have been mistakes that were made along the way. And in the Army, in the military, we look to the mistakes we've made. We identify what the mistakes were, if there's anyone to be held accountable, and we ensure that we don't make those mistakes again. And in this case, I believe, as the secretary of Defense indicated, we have identified mistakes and we're moving forward.
YOUNG: Well, in fact, you want to move forward. You want to go back. You want to return to active duty two years after leaving service. I think people are trying to - going through the records to see if anybody's ever gotten the Medal of Honor and then gone back. Why do you want to go back?
SWENSON: You know, I keep hearing that I'm going back.
YOUNG: Oh, are you going - well, let's ask you, shall we? Do you want to go back?
SWENSON: If you've served in the military, you understand that it's a special bond and it's a special place, and there's no other career like it. It's service. And if you speak to most service members, I believe that they'll tell you that every day is their last day in the military. And yet they wake up again and there they are, and they're still in the military and they're still serving proudly.
This is just an opportunity for me to determine what best to do with this opportunity that I've now been given with this medal and how best to reflect upon the contributions and sacrifices that I saw on that battlefield and also to respect and honor our current service members. So that's what we're looking to do at this point.
YOUNG: But do you know what you're going to do?
SWENSON: Do any of us?
YOUNG: You know, you, better than anybody, can pose it that way. Well, as we await to hear what you do, what were you thinking when the medal was put around your neck?
SWENSON: I don't think that I was thinking about much of anything. I think I was overwhelmed by the - what I believe is a monumental event in my life. And there were a few thoughts, but I did feel for the families. I looked out in that audience and I saw families and I saw fellow teammates, and it was just a proud moment for all of us.
YOUNG: And, well, and we can only imagine that one or two of those thoughts were for those who weren't there.
SWENSON: They are my team.
YOUNG: That's Army Captain William Swenson, who received the Medal of Honor for bravery during a battle in Afghanistan four years ago. Captain Swenson, keep us posted, will you, as to what you decide to do.
SWENSON: Well, thank you. And I thought this was a pledge drive, so I was pleasantly surprised.
YOUNG: I can give you the phone number.
SWENSON: All right. Thank you.
YOUNG: Thank you. Bye. You gotta laugh. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. There's nothing wrong with pledge drives, by the way. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.