Four years after risking his life in Afghanistan, William Swenson solemnly received the Medal of Honor on Tuesday in a case of battlefield bravery with some odd twists: The Army captain questioned the judgment of his superiors, and the paperwork nominating him for the award was lost. He left the military two years ago but wants to return to active duty, a rare move for a medal recipient.
The nation's highest military honor was clasped around Swenson's neck by President Barack Obama at the White House. The president described how Swenson repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover fallen comrades and help save others during a battle against Taliban insurgents in the Ganjgal valley near the Pakistan border on Sept. 8, 2009. The fight claimed five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter.
Swenson is the second Medal of Honor recipient from that fight, just the second time in half a century that the medal has been awarded to two survivors of the same battle, Obama said. Two years ago, he presented the Medal of Honor to Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer for his heroic actions.
Obama noted that although America's highest military honor has been bestowed nearly 3,500 times, never before had the public been able to see any of the bravery it was designed to recognize. Video taken by the medevac crew's helmet cameras shows Swenson delivering a severely wounded soldier to the helicopter and kissing him on the head before returning to the battle.
"A simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms," Obama said.
Swenson, 34, of Seattle has been unemployed since leaving the military in February 2011. His request to return to active duty is being reviewed, Army spokesman George Wright said.
A sober Swenson said the medal didn't belong to him alone. "This award was earned with a team, a team of our finest. This medal represents them. It represents us," he said in a brief statement afterward.
Swenson complained to military leaders after the fight that many of his calls for help were rejected by superiors. After an investigation, two Army officers were reprimanded for being "inadequate and ineffective" and for "contributing directly to the loss of life."