For Medal of Honor recipient Capt. William Swenson, a
rocky path to the White House
By David Nakamura
October 12, 2013
...An Army investigation, finalized 11 / 2 years later, resulted in severe
reprimands of two officers who were in charge at the forward operating base
that fielded Swenson’s calls for help.
War correspondent Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, who was
embedded with the coalition troops, has written extensively about the battle. He
called Swenson “one of the most upstanding and moral men I have met
in my life, someone who believes in what he’s doing. He believes in the
regulations, in accountability. He’s unwilling to accept the go-along,
But it was Meyer who gained the most attention and acclaim — a 21-year-old
from Kentucky who reportedly disregarded orders and rushed into the battle
from a rear position after listening to the ambush on the radio.
On Sept. 14, 2011, Meyer visited the White House to have a beer with Obama.
The next day he appeared in the East Room, where the president draped the
Medal of Honor around his neck. He was the first living Marine to win the award
in 38 years. Obama hailed Meyer for helping save 13 Americans and 23
Afghans in a feat that “will be told for generations.”
Others were not convinced. Three months later, Landay published an
exhaustive investigation, based on internal military documents and interviews
with Afghan troops, that alleged the official narrative that supported Meyer’s
award inflated the number of Americans he rescued and how many insurgents
Landay reported that 11 U.S. troops were on the battlefield and that four died
that day. In his account, it was Swenson who led the final mission to retrieve the
bodies of the four dead Americans, with Meyer in the back seat of the Humvee.
Landay emphasized that Meyer also performed heroically and that his fellow
troops thought he deserved the medal, despite the contradictions.
The Marine Corps and Meyer have disputed Landay’s findings. Asked to
comment, Meyer said through a spokeswoman: “I am very proud of Captain
Swenson. He received the medal he deserves. . . . My family and I will continue
to have everyone who lost their lives that day in our thoughts and prayers.”
As Meyer accepted his award, Swenson’s medal
nomination — first submitted by the Army in December
2009 — had vanished.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has never spoken with Swenson, but he was
incensed when he learned about his case last year.
A former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hunter was frustrated by
what he called the “armchair bureaucracy sitting back at the Pentagon
changing what the guys on the ground are saying happened.”
The congressman took up Swenson’s cause, writing letters to high-ranking
military officials. “It’s taken four years for Swenson to get the medal,” Hunter
said in an interview. “Don’t tell me you can’t do it in six months.”
After an internal investigation, Army officials concluded that Swenson’s digital
nomination packet had been lost in the computer system for 19 months. Landay
also reported that the Army’s investigation had uncovered evidence that military
officials may have improperly attempted to downgrade the original nomination
to a Distinguished Service Cross.
An Army spokeswoman said this past week that Swenson’s award had not been
downgraded and that Medal of Honor award procedures were not violated.
Swenson was renominated in 2011 after Marine Gen. John R. Allen, then the
commander in Afghanistan, took interest.
“The Army is reviewing ways to ensure this type of injustice does not happen
again,” said spokeswoman Tatjana Christian, adding that it typically takes one
to three years to process a Medal of Honor nomination before it reaches the
White House. She also noted that a medal was awarded this spring to Army
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, a Korean War prisoner of war who died in captivity in
During the delay, Westbrook’s widow, Charlene Westbrook, who lives in
Colorado, shared her frustrations in telephone conversations with Swenson. “It
was almost like a blacklist,” she said in an interview. “He said something,
criticized the upper ranks, and he’s being punished for it.”
Swenson retreated further into private life while Meyer became a prominent
public figure. Last fall, Meyer published an autobiography titled “Into the Fire,”
co-written by military author Bing West. Meyer said in the book that he killed a
Taliban fighter by bashing him on the head with a rock — a detail he had not
told investigators after the battle.
In the book, Meyer and West praise Swenson and criticize the Army for its
handling of his case. But Swenson remains skeptical of Meyer and the publicity
he has sought. Swenson has not spoken publicly about the Ganjgal battle.
In recent days, Swenson pressed the Army to produce a section on the Medal
of Honor Web site with maps and diagrams of the Ganjgal battle based on
documents he provided. The site went online this past week. Some of the
information in the account, Swenson said, “is not going to mutually support
One of the few people Swenson keeps in touch with from his Army days is
Charlene Westbrook. The two have spoken monthly since Ganjgal, and last
year he traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., where she was presented the Silver Star
in honor of her husband.
When Swenson told her last month that his own medal had been approved,
Westbrook said, “I cried, and he assured me he was accepting it for the team.”
Westbrook credited Swenson with helping her and her three adult sons cope
with a series of family traumas. Kenneth Westbrook’s older brother Marshall, a
New Mexico National Guardsman, was killed during combat in Iraq in 2005. Last
year, Marshall’s daughter Nicole, 21, was slain in a random shooting in Seattle.
The Army widow said Swenson offered support when she flew to Seattle after
her niece was shot, a sign, perhaps, that the former captain has not left his
service days entirely behind.
“He’s my soldier,” Swenson said of his dead battlefield partner. “You take care
of your soldiers.”
Who gets awards, and why?
Sometimes it's those who go along to get along
|San Diego Education Report