WASHINGTON – Like other U.S. trainers with the Afghan force that day, former Army Capt. William Swenson had expected light resistance. Instead, the contingent walked into a furious six-hour gunfight with Taliban ambushers in which Swenson repeatedly charged through intense fire to retrieve wounded and dead.
The 2009 battle of Ganjgal is perhaps the most remarkable of the Afghan war for its extraordinary heroism and deadly incompetence. It produced dozens of casualties, career-killing reprimands and a slew of commendations for valor. They included two Medal of Honor nominations, one for Swenson.
Yet months after the first living Army officer in some 40 years was put in for the nation’s highest military award for gallantry, his nomination vanished into a bureaucratic black hole. The U.S. military in Afghanistan said an investigation had found that it was “lost” in the approval process, something that several experts dismissed as improbable, saying that hasn’t happened since the awards system was computerized in the mid-1970s.
In fact, the investigation uncovered evidence that suggests a far more troubling explanation. It showed that as former Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer’s Medal of Honor nomination from the same battle sailed toward approval despite questions about the accuracy of the account of his deeds, there may have been an effort to kill Swenson’s nomination.
Swenson’s original nomination was downgraded to a lesser award, in violation of Army and Defense Department regulations, evidence uncovered by the investigation showed.
Moreover, Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination “packet,” a digitized file that contains dozens of documents attesting to his “heroism … above and beyond the call of duty,” disappeared from the computer system dedicated to processing awards, a circumstance for which the military said it has no explanation.
A TAINTED PROCESS?
The unpublished findings, which McClatchy has reviewed, threaten to taint a military awards process that’s designed to leave no margin of doubt or possibility of error about the heroism and sacrifices of U.S. service personnel. They also could bolster charges by some officers, lawmakers, veterans groups and experts that the process is vulnerable to improper interference and manipulation, embarrassing the military services and the Obama administration.
“The whole awards system is just totally jacked up,” said Doug Sterner, a military historian who’s made a career of verifying the authenticity of commendations.
The Pentagon and the military services deny that the system is flawed, and the U.S. command in Afghanistan denied that there was any attempt to downgrade Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination.
Yet despite the possibility of malfeasance or worse, no further effort was made to determine what happened. The “discrepancies” posed by the evidence of a downgrade to a Distinguished Service Cross “could not be resolved,” the investigators said.
Swenson’s nomination was resubmitted last year. President Barack Obama must approve it before Sept. 8, the third anniversary of the battle, or it expires and can be revived only by an act of Congress.
It couldn’t be determined whether there was an effort to kill Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination, but motives to do so exist.
Interviewed by military investigators five days after the battle, Swenson implicitly criticized top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan by blasting their rules of engagement. Angered that his repeated calls for artillery and air support were denied during the ambush, he charged that in trying to prevent civilian casualties for political reasons, the rules were costing U.S. soldiers’ lives.
“We are not looking at the ground fighter and why he is using these air assets,” Swenson said, according to a transcript obtained by McClatchy. “We just reduced an asset that’s politically unpopular. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there saying, ‘I would really like that asset.’ There are probably a lot of people who got killed as a result of not having that asset.”
“I’m not a politician. I’m just the guy on the ground asking for that ammunition to be dropped because it’s going to save lives,” he continued.
Further, several key parts of the Army’s draft account of Swenson’s deeds – a central pillar of a nomination file – conflict with the Marines’ account of Meyer’s acts.
The Army’s version, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, said it was Swenson – not Meyer – who led the recovery of U.S. and Afghan casualties from the Ganjgal Valley.
“The need for a ground recovery of all remaining casualties had now become clear,” the Army’s draft narrative said. “Facing this extreme and dire circumstance, and going above and beyond the call of duty, CPT Swenson gathered available combat power to lead a return up the wash.”
The Army’s draft narrative also corroborated the reporting of a McClatchy correspondent who survived the ambush that the belated arrival of U.S. helicopters had allowed trapped American personnel to escape, and that they weren’t saved by Meyer.
PROBLEM GOES AWAY
“A team of scout helicopters … arrived in the valley. CPT Swenson … began to talk the aircrafts’ fires onto the various enemy targets,” the draft narrative said. “The enemy sporadically engaged coalition forces while they were overhead. This provided (Swenson and those with him) the slim opportunity they needed” to pull back.
The problem of conflicting narratives would have been eliminated with the quiet death of Swenson’s nomination, which was put in some two months before Meyer was nominated.
Clearing Meyer’s award would have pacified Marine leaders who blamed Marine casualties on the Army’s failure to provide timely air and ground support. Moreover, they were angered by the first investigation of the battle – conducted solely by the Army – which they considered unbalanced. And then the Army nominated one of its own for the Medal of Honor.
After receiving an official inquiry about its status in July 2011, Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, resubmitted Swenson’s nomination when a duplicate packet was found outside the computerized awards system. Allen also ordered the investigation into what happened to the original.
Swenson’s replacement nomination, submitted about the same time that Obama signed off on Meyer’s decoration, is believed to have been approved by the Army’s leadership and is awaiting a review by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta before being passed to Obama for final action. George Little, a spokesman for Panetta, declined to discuss the case.
Swenson, 33, of Seattle, declined to be interviewed for this report.
The evidence that his original Medal of Honor nomination was downgraded against regulations comes on top of a McClatchy investigation that found that the Marine Corps inflated its account of Meyer’s deeds, attributing actions to him that were embellished or unsubstantiated or that couldn’t have happened.
Obama’s recitation of Meyer’s acts – delivered at a White House awards ceremony on Sept. 15, 2011 – repeated the exaggerated and erroneous details, said the McClatchy investigation, which was published in December by the journalist who survived the ambush while on assignment with Meyer’s unit.
Swenson was an adviser to 30 Afghan Border Police officers who joined Afghan troops Sept. 8, 2009, for what was expected to be a low-risk mission to Ganjgal. Word of the operation leaked, however, and the contingent walked into a trap set by an estimated 50 to 60 insurgents. Swenson was nominated for the award for helping extricate the force and repeatedly driving back into the kill zone to retrieve casualties.