William D. Swenson

The ferocious, seven-hour battle of Ganjgal, in the Afghan province of Kunar, erupted when Taliban fighters on high, terraced ground, ambushed an Embedded Training Team and accompanying Afghan forces on the morning of September 8, 2009. Just after sunrise, entrenched Taliban forces surrounded the team on three sides and bombarded them with heavy fire from machine guns, small arms and RPG. The team lost communication with the front of the column and Embedded Trainer Captain Swenson, originally positioned near the rear, called for air support.

The command post refused artillery support because of concerns over civilian casualties. Subsequent Army and Air Force efforts to assist were overruled, and nearby helicopters were engaged in another operation. Relaying information that they were not near the village, the team made a second request for air support, again denied.

With two comrades, Swenson crossed 50 meters of open ground under heavy fire to administer life-saving aid and evacuate Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, who had been shot in the neck. Lying on his back, Swenson used one hand to treat Westbrook’s wound and the other hand to call for a MedEvac unit. He covered himself with a bright orange panel marker to make it easier for the MedEvac unit to find them—and also for the enemy to see him.

The enemy only 20 to 30 meters away, called for surrender. Swenson answered by lobbing a grenade, an act that rallied his troops to continue the fight.

With standard smoke unavailable, after 90 minutes of fighting, white phosphorous was used to provide cover. By that time, three Marines, a Navy Corpsman, an Army soldier, an Afghan interpreter and several Afghan soldiers had been mortally wounded and could not be reached. Captain Swenson coordinated the air support, indirect fire and MedEvac helicopter support for the wounded.

Helicopter support arrived as Taliban snipers moved into flanking positions and provided cover for the helmetless Swenson and a medic to carry Westbrook 600 yards through swirling dust and flying bullets to a waiting helicopter. In a moment captured on helmet cameras and broadcast throughout the world, Swenson leaned in, comforted Westbrook and kissed him on the head.

Swenson returned to the battle and, seeing more American and Afghan troops still exposed, jumped into an unarmored pickup truck. With a Marine, he went twice into the “kill zone” and, under heavy fire, rescued injured Afghan soldiers. When the truck quit, they continued in a Humvee.

When a helicopter crew spotted four missing Americans, Swenson and a crew that included Corp. Dakota Meyer, who also received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, went to recover them. They drove through enemy fire to the village, where they left the truck to carry out their fallen comrades, one at a time.

Although Sgt. Westbrook died a month later in a U.S. hospital, Captain Swenson’s actions are believed to have saved more than a dozen lives.

The helicopter crew that lifted out Sgt. Westbrook made a remarkable video of some of the battlefield action. An Army video about the event, including an interview with Swenson, can be seen here

The citation reads:
Captain William D. Swenson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as embedded advisor to the Afghan National Border Police, Task Force Phoenix, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan in support of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on September 8, 2009. On that morning, more than 60 well-armed, well-positioned enemy fighters ambushed Captain Swenson's combat team as it moved on foot into the village of Ganjgal for a meeting with village elders. As the enemy unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and machine gun fire, Captain Swenson immediately returned fire and coordinated and directed the response of his Afghan Border Police, while simultaneously calling in suppressive artillery fire and aviation support. After the enemy effectively flanked Coalition Forces, Captain Swenson repeatedly called for smoke to cover the withdrawal of the forward elements. Surrounded on three sides by enemy forces inflicting effective and accurate fire, Captain Swenson coordinated air assets, indirect fire support and medical evacuation helicopter support to allow for the evacuation of the wounded. Captain Swenson ignored enemy radio transmissions demanding surrender and maneuvered uncovered to render medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier. Captain Swenson stopped administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at approaching enemy forces, before assisting with moving the soldier for air evacuation. With complete disregard for his own safety, Captain Swenson unhesitatingly led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions, to recover the wounded and search for four missing comrades. After using aviation support to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades, it became clear that ground recovery of the fallen was required due to heavy enemy fire on helicopter landing zones. Captain Swenson’s team returned to the kill zone another time in a Humvee. Captain Swenson voluntarily exited the vehicle, exposing himself to enemy fire, to locate and recover three fallen Marines and one fallen Navy corpsman. His exceptional leadership and stout resistance against the enemy during six hours of continuous fighting rallied his teammates and effectively disrupted the enemy's assault. Captain William D. Swenson's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Task Force Phoenix, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division and the United States Army.