WASHINGTON - President Obama took a break from dealing with the
fiscal crisis on Tuesday to award former Army captain William Swenson
the Medal of Honor, making him the first Army officer to receive the
military's highest honor since Vietnam.
Obama suggested that
Washington could learn from Swenson, as he briefly reflected during the
ceremony on the ongoing government shutdown and the precipice of default
if Congress doesn't raise the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.
moments like this, Americans like Will remind us 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 its easy but also when
it is hard," Obama said. "Will, you are an example to everyone in this
city and to our whole country of the professionalism and patriotism we
should strive for if we wear a uniform or not."
sixth living recipient of the honor from the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq. He was honored for his heroics in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley,
where he was helping lead a column of American soldiers and Marines, and
their Afghan counterparts, to meet a group of village elders. Swenson
and his team were ambushed by some 60 well-armed Taliban fighters.
American troops would face a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade,
mortar and machine gun fire. Swenson would quickly coordinate a
response of fire, while calling in artillery and aviation support, but
the U.S. forces would become surrounded on three sides by the enemy. An
hour into the fight communication with lead elements was lost.
one point in the chaos, Swenson coordinated helicopter support,
returning fire on the enemy and treating a critically wounded comrade,
Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook.
Obama remarked about combat
video from the helicopter that came to evacuate Westbrook, which showed
Swenson emerge from a cloud of dust. The video, which the Army released
last month, captures Swenson in a "simple act of compassion and loyalty"
to his wounded comrade, Obama said.
"He helps carry that wounded
soldier to the helicopter and helps place him inside and then in the
midst the whipping wind and deafening roar he does something
unexpected," Obama said. "He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on
Swenson and the Americans would fight for at least six hours and took
more casualties and were even denied artillery fire and air support,
but they never relented as Swenson led the recovery of the dead and
wounded, Obama said.
The recognition of Swenson for his gallantry
marks only the second time in the last 50 years that two American
servicemembers have received the Medal of Honor for actions in the same
In 2011, Dakota Meyer, a Marine sergeant who also is now a
civilian, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in that Sept.
8, 2009, battle in Afghanistan.
Swenson's medal comes with some
controversy. Some, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., questioned
whether the Defense Department purposely slow walked approval of the
high honor. During an internal investigation of what happened at Ganjgal
battle, Swenson told expressed dismay that his repeated calls for close
air support were denied.
Army later acknowledged that close air support was improperly denied,
and two Army officers who were at the combat operations center when the
calls came in received reprimands.
Meyer told the Marine Corps Times
before he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011 that it was
"ridiculous" Swenson already hadn't received some form of valor award.
"I'll put it this way," Meyer said of Swenson. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be alive today."
brief remarks to reporters following the ceremony, Swenson said the
honor belongs not just to him, but all those who fought beside him.
"This award was earned with a team, a team of our finest," Swenson said. "This medal represents them; it represents us."