Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler helps retired Army Capt. William Swenson adjust his Medal of Honor before his induction ceremony into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 16. Swenson received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle of Ganjgal in 2009. (Mike Morones / Staff)
Medal of Honor recipient Will Swenson was lauded Wednesday by senior defense officials as a role model who carried himself gracefully — even after the Army botched his initial nomination for the award following a brutal battle that killed five fellow service members.
Swenson, a former Army captain, was inducted into the Pentagon Hall of Heroes before about 200 friends, family members and fellow service members. The ceremony occurred one day after he received the Medal of Honor at the White House for his heroism in the Battle of Ganjgal, a Sept. 8, 2009, clash between insurgents and coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
Swenson received the nation’s highest award for valor following rampant speculation that his initial nomination was stalled in Afghanistan because he blasted his senior officers during an investigation into what went wrong in Ganjgal. In an interview with investigators, he criticized their rules of engagement, the leadership of officers who didn’t promptly send help to troops under fire, and the second-guessing he experienced when requesting fire support, according to a copy of his witness statement.
Army officials said in 2011 that Swenson’s initial nomination for the award was lost at a headquarters unit in Afghanistan. It received new scrutiny from Marine Gen. John Allen, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, as the battle received extensive media coverage while a Medal of Honor nomination for another warrior in the same firefight, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, made its way to President Obama. Meyer received the award in September 2011.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel apologized to Swenson and his family during the ceremony Wednesday for his initial nomination being lost.
Swenson is credited with braving enemy fire repeatedly while leading coalition forces out of a fierce ambush by more than 60 enemy fighters and caring for numerous U.S. and Afghan casualties in the process.
“We’re sorry that you and your family had to endure through that, but you did and you handled it right,” Hagel said. “And I think that deserves a tremendous amount of attention and credit. We celebrate you today, Will. We celebrate your family. We celebrate your very brave colleagues who have been recognized, those who didn’t make it back, their families today. But we celebrate all the good things about our country today because of you. And we’re grateful.”
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, and other senior officials also praised Swenson for his willingness to speak out about deficencies that led to to the deaths of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22, on the battlefield. They were cut down by gunfire after being ambushed and separated from other coalition forces on the battlefield.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, 41, died a month later due to medical complications from a gunshot wound he sustained.
“Even after the battle, Will was not afraid to point out deficiencies in the operation that caused difficulty in obtaining the timely support necessary,” Odierno said. “He recognized the importance in assessing performance, and had the character to stick to his convictions. That’s how we grow as soldiers, that’s how we grow as an Army, and that’s how we grow as a joint force.”
Army Secretary John McHugh said he issued a directive requiring that all Medal of Honor nominations in the service be sent to Army Human Resources Command, which oversees awards.
McHugh said that as soon as a nomination is created at the battalion level, higher headquarters will immediately be aware of it.
“Each subsequent command’s review will also be required to immediately be forwarded to HRC, and in return HRC will follow up with the original command every 30 days until that award packet reaches its final review,” McHugh said.
The Army secretary said the effort will create greater oversight — and make sure that no future nomination is lost along the way.
“Our heroes have always taught us many things, and that is true here today,” McHugh said. “Sometimes our heroes teach us how to make ourselves better, and Will did that as well.”
The families of the service members who died in the battle and many of the survivors attended the ceremony, and were recognized with standing ovations. In a brief speech, Swenson praised them all.
“When I look in this crowd, I see the strength of a nation, and I see the strength of a fighting force,” Swenson said. “One that I fought proudly with. I look to my fellow Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force, a team that I fought with side by side as brothers. It was the proudest moment of my life, and I am honored and privileged to know these men.”
Swenson said he finds inspiration in the Gold Star families created in the battle.
“I find strength in their strength,” he said. “Our nation should find strength in their strength.”