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Afghan war vet awarded Medal of Honor, seeks to return to active duty

 

After nearly being overlooked, and according to some accounts intentionally forgotten, Army Capt. William Swenson received the Medal of Honor at an emotional White House ceremony Tuesday for his heroic actions during the 2009 Battle of Ganjgal in eastern Afghanistan. 

Ganjgal was one of the bloodiest battles of the 12-year war. Ambushed by the Taliban, coalition forces were pinned down for nine hours. The fight ended with five U.S. deaths, 10 Afghan army deaths and over two-dozen coalition wounded. 

Late Tuesday, Fox News confirmed reports that Swenson, who since leaving the Army in 2011 has spent much of his time in the wilderness of Washington state, has asked the Army to return him to active duty -- a rare request for a Medal of Honor recipient. An Army spokesman said, "We are reviewing his request and processing it within established policy." 

The ceremony Tuesday marked only the second time in half a century that the nation's highest award for valor has been given to two survivors of the same battle. In 2011, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who fought alongside Swenson, received the same medal for his actions at Ganjgal. 

But Swenson's battle didn't end in Ganjgal. After the firefight, he bitterly complained about incompetence in the ranks, suggesting to Army investigators and reporters that his commanders decided the political risk of civilian casualties outweighed the need to protect the lives of Americans. 

Swenson said his multiple requests for air support were denied as he repeatedly put his life at risk to save his fallen and wounded comrades.

A year-and-a-half after the battle, an Army investigation resulted in career-ending reprimands for two of the officers responsible for fielding Swenson's calls for help.

Swenson told Fox News on Tuesday that while "you can have misunderstandings" and disagreements with individuals, "the institution cannot let you down."  

"The Army did not let me down," he said.  

Describing the ceremony on Tuesday, he said: "I looked into a room that was there to support me, but I was there to support them, and I will continue to be there to support them. My colleagues, families of the fallen -- it was a powerful moment."

President Obama described Swenson's actions at the ceremony Tuesday. "Will and the soldiers in the center of the column are pinned down. Rocket propelled grenades, mortar, machine gun fire -- all of this is pouring in from three sides. As he returns fire, Will calls for air support, but his initial requests are denied."

Obama continued: "And then Will learns that his non-commissioned officer, Sergeant 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, has been shot in the neck. So Will breaks across 50 meters of open space, bullets biting all around. Lying on his back, he presses a bandage to Kenneth's wounds with one hand, and calls for a medevac with the other, trying to keep his buddy calm."

Dramatic helmet-cam video released by the Army shows Swenson lift his badly wounded comrade into a medevac chopper, stopping to kiss him on the forehead before returning to the fight.  Westbrook's wife would later thank Swenson for helping keep him alive long enough so that she could say her final goodbyes.

Initially, the Army began to process Swenson for the Medal of Honor, compiling a comprehensive account of his actions that day. But as Meyer received his award in 2011, suspicion arose about why Swenson's name had not come up at the White House. The Army later claimed it "lost" the phonebook-sized Medal of Honor nomination packet on Swenson. The veracity of that claim is now the subject of an ongoing Army inspector general's investigation.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has been a strong advocate for Swenson, says the packet wasn't lost, but rather it was purposefully destroyed.

"His record got deleted," Hunter, an Iraq war veteran, told Fox News in an interview Tuesday. "I mean, somebody went in and took his Medal of Honor nomination and deleted it from the awards database. That means that somebody in the Army did not want him to get the Medal of Honor." 

Hunter claims it was an act of retribution against Swenson for speaking out about his commanders. Hunter and his staff were instrumental in pressuring the Army to reinstate Swenson's application for the Medal of Honor.