WASHINGTON — A former Army captain was awarded the nation’s highest military honor Tuesday for his bravery, caught on video, during one of the deadliest battles in Afghanistan at a somber, sometimes emotional, White House ceremony.
President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on former Army Capt. William Swenson for his actions during a deadly six-hour battle in Afghanistan in 2009. The battle has been the source of controversy for years in part because Swenson failed to receive the air and artillery support he had requested.
Obama praised Swenson in brief remarks in the East Room before fastening the light blue Medal of Honor ribbon around his neck. Swenson stood still, visibly perspiring, his hands clasped together in front of him. But as Obama spoke about the battle’s victims, Swenson struggled to compose himself, and a single tear rolled down his cheek.
“Moments like this, Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best — a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard. Maybe especially when it’s hard,” Obama said. “Will, you’re an example to everyone in this city, and to our whole country, of the professionalism and patriotism that we should strive for — whether we wear the uniform or not — not just on particular occasions, but all the time.”
Swenson resigned from the Army in February 2011. He lives a quiet life near the Puget Sound in the Seattle area, where he is unemployed. He has asked to return to the Army, and his request is expected to be approved.
Obama described Swenson as a “pretty low-key guy,” who would rather be on a Pacific Northwest mountain or on a trail surrounded by cedar trees instead of at an elaborate ceremony in front of hundreds of people at the White House.
He was nominated for his role the Sept. 8, 2009, battle of the Ganjgal Valley, which erupted when about 60 Taliban-led insurgents ambushed a contingent of Afghan troops, border police and U.S. trainers.
Swenson returned repeatedly to the battlefield to recover American and Afghan casualties under fire. “Will Swenson was there for his brothers,” Obama said.
The Medal of Honor has been given nearly 3,500 times but, as Obama said, never before had Americans been able to witness the valor that led to the honor. Video captured from cameras mounted on the helmets of pilots, though shaky and grainy, showed Swenson delivering his badly wounded sergeant, Kenneth Westbrook, to a helicopter and placing a kiss on Westbrook’s head.