WASHINGTON -- A former Army captain received the nation’s highest military honor from President Barack Obama for his bravery in one of the most deadly firefights in Afghanistan.
William D. Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor Tuesday for his actions in a lengthy battle against the Taliban in the Ganjgal valley near the Pakistan border on Sept. 8, 2009, which claimed the lives of five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter.
At the time, Swenson was an embedded trainer and mentor with the Afghan National Security Forces in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. He risked his life to recover bodies and help save fellow troops.
“Will Swenson was there for his brothers, he was there for their families,” Mr. Obama said. “We thank God he was there for us all.”
Last month, CBS News correspondent David Martin reported on an extraordinary video that came to light which shows Swenson in action.
“Everybody was taking fire,” said Sgt. Kevin Duerst of the California National Guard, the crew chief of a medevac helicopter that flew into the valley. “The whole valley was just a giant ambush. It was crazy.”
Both he and the pilot recorded the battle with cameras attached to their helmets, producing the dramatic video.
Duerst first spotted Swenson from the air.
“We saw him because he lay down with a panel marker,” he said. “It’s a bright orange panel. He was laying on his back and it was on his chest so we could see him.”
That panel also made him an easier target for the enemy shooting down from three sides.
Sgt. First Class Kenneth Westbrook had been hit in the throat and was bleeding to death. Swenson and a medic helped Westbrook to the helicopter. Then, amid the hell of combat, something beautiful happened.
“Sgt. Westbrook kind of leaned down and Capt. Swenson kind of leaned down and they had, they kind of looked at each other and it appeared that they were talking, but Capt. Swenson kissed him on the forehead and then tapped the side of his head,” Duerst said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama called that moment a “simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms.”
Westbrook, of Shiprock, N.M., later died from his wounds.
Four other Americans died in the ambush: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., a 31-year-old gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga.
Swenson complained to military leaders after the fight that many of his calls for help were rejected by superior officers. Two Army officers were reprimanded for being “inadequate and ineffective” and for “contributing directly to the loss of life” following an investigation into the day’s events.
The military says Swenson’s initial medal nomination was lost. Another man who fought in the battle, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011.
Swenson, 34, retired from the military in February 2011. He has a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal and lives in Seattle.
Swenson will be the sixth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama also will attend Tuesday’s medal ceremony in the East Room of the White House.