Four years after he survived a brutal firefight in a remote Afghanistan valley that claimed the lives of five Americans, retired U.S. Army Capt. William Swenson will be hailed as a hero at the White House on Tuesday.
Swenson, 34, is credited with risking his life to help save his fellow troops and recover their bodies, feats that President Barack Obama will recount when he presents Swenson with the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor.
But for Swenson, the award stands for more than his personal bravery during the seven-hour battle in the Ganjgal valley, near the Pakistan border, on Sept. 8, 2009. It is also a measure of vindication.
After returning from the battlefield, Swenson engaged in a lengthy and bitter dispute with the military over the narrative of one of the Afghanistan war's most notorious firefights.
The questions he raised resulted in reprimands for two other officers and what he believes was an effort by the Army to discredit him. His account also cast doubt on the exploits of another Medal of Honor winner from the same battle, Dakota Meyer of the Marine Corps.
United in war, the two men have taken far different paths since. Meyer has found celebrity and success, with a book and a personal assistant, boosted by a story that Swenson considers an inflated and misleading account of that harrowing day.
Swenson — the first Army officer since Vietnam to win the medal — has been unemployed since leaving the service in 2011. He is single and lives in Seattle, growing a thick beard and long hair, in contrast to the clean-cut look of his military days, and escaping often to the mountains to find solitude in "my forced early retirement."
"Are you familiar with Pyrrhic victories?" Swenson said in a recent interview. "That's what I specialize in."
Ganjgal remains one of the costliest battles of the 12-year Afghan conflict. In addition to the five U.S. deaths, 10 Afghan army troops and a translator also were killed, while more than two dozen coalition troops were injured.
The troops were part of a coalition task force that set out that morning to meet with village elders, a mission designed to "separate the isolated mountain communities from insurgents," according to the Army. Shortly after making their way over the rocky terrain and descending into the valley, however, they came under heavy fire from 60 well-armed Taliban fighters who had snuck into the area overnight.
Overmatched and quickly separated from one another, the coalition troops fought for hours as insurgents rained down gunfire in the U-shaped mountain pass.
Toward the end of the battle, Swenson and Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo made two trips into the kill zone to rescue Afghan troops. Then they joined Meyer and Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who had been making separate rescue missions, to recover the bodies of three Marines, a Navy corpsman and their Afghan translator, who were found in a deep trench. (Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez were awarded the Navy Cross.)
In an interview with superiors several days later, Swenson lashed out at the military's rules of engagement, which had been tightened by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an effort to limit civilian casualties. Swenson demanded to know why many of his radio calls for air cover and artillery support were rejected by superiors. He asked why he was "being second-guessed by (higher-ups) or somebody that's sitting in an air-conditioned" office.
An Army investigation, finalized 11/2 years later, resulted in severe reprimands of two officers who were in charge at the forward operating base that fielded Swenson's calls for help.
War correspondent Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, who was embedded with the coalition troops, has written extensively about the battle. He called Swenson "one of the most upstanding and moral men I have met in my life, someone who believes in what he's doing. He believes in the regulations, in accountability. He's unwilling to accept the go-along, get-along."
But it was Meyer who gained the most attention and acclaim — a 21-year-old from Kentucky who reportedly disregarded orders and rushed into the battle from a rear position after listening to the ambush on the radio.
On Sept. 14, 2011, Meyer visited the White House to have a beer with Obama. The next day he appeared in the East Room, where the president draped the Medal of Honor around his neck. He was the first living Marine to win the award in 38 years. Obama hailed Meyer for helping save 13 Americans and 23 Afghans in a feat that "will be told for generations."
Others were not convinced. Three months later, Landay published an exhaustive investigation, based on internal military documents and interviews with Afghan troops, that alleged the official narrative that supported Meyer's award inflated the number of Americans he rescued and how many insurgents he killed.
Landay reported that 11 U.S. troops were on the battlefield and that four died that day. In his account, it was Swenson who led the final mission to retrieve the bodies of the four Americans, with Meyer in the back seat of the Humvee. Landay emphasized that Meyer also performed heroically and that his fellow troops thought he deserved the medal, despite the contradictions.
The Marine Corps and Meyer have disputed Landay's findings. Asked to comment, Meyer said through a spokeswoman: "I am very proud of Captain Swenson. He received the medal he deserves. … My family and I will continue to have everyone who lost their lives that day in our thoughts and prayers."
Swenson was nominated for his award in December 2009, but military officials say a digital nomination packet had been lost in the computer system for 19 months. Swenson was renominated in 2011.