Monday, September 19, 2011

Army Captain Will Swenson Belatedly Recommended for Medal of Honor (Update: More Questions, No Answer)

The story of the Medal of Honor recipient Sgt Dakota Meyer, USMC is steadily yielding more information, including the fact that another participant of the battle at Ganjgal, Afghanistan in September 2009, has been previously passed over entirely for recognition.  This would appear to be retaliation for his ‘frank and candid’ assessment of the refusal of higher headquarters to provide fire support for US and Afghan troops in danger of being over-run in a well-executed Taliban ambush that lasted over six hours.  The small US and Afghan elements were entering the village in the early morning hours to speak to the elders about police patrols when they were hit by a force estimated now to be 100 to 150 Taliban fighters from well-prepared and dug-in positions.

Captain Will Swenson, USA, a Ranger School graduate attached to 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division at the time, fought alongside Sgt Meyer as well as then-1st Lt Fabayo and SSgt Rodriguez (both Marines and both later recipients of the Navy Cross for their actions in the battle), as they entered the kill zone several times in efforts to extract the US and Afghan troops, wounded and dead, and fight off the Taliban in the U-shaped ambush.  Swenson also manned a radio and repeatedly called for artillery and air support, both available, but after only a few artillery shells, all support ceased.  The investigation revealed that the under-manned and complacent Tactical Operations Center (TOC) many miles away was generally ill-advised about the operation and decided that responding as Swenson called for would place the villagers in danger, as well as other troops with whom they did not have direct contact (in the benighted estimation of the headquarters).  Swenson and others described seeing villagers (including women and older children) running ammunition to the Taliban fighters, and there is a photo showing some teenagers rolling large rocks onto the road in an effort to prevent the US vehicles from manoeuvring.  Sgt Meyer has stated that he knew the general location of  the three Marines and one Navy Corpsman who unfortunately turned out to be KIA - that was why he was trying to fight through the village and ambush to get to them, along with Swenson.

After sustaining heavy casualties for nearly two hours, some helicopters arrived to provide some limited aid.  They were delayed because the TOC would not send help nor did it notify higher headquarters of the firefight.  Other helos were called back because the correct procedure was not followed.

A copy of the investigation has been obtained by Military Times (additionally, a sanitised executive summary can be read here), and some of the more public comments of CPT Swenson have been determined to be
When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?  Let’s sit back and play Nintendo.  I am the ground commander, I want that f—er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f—er. . . .  I always get these crazy messages saying that, ‘Hey, brigade is saying that you can’t see the target.’  Brigade, you’re in Jalalabad.  F— you, you know?   I am staring at the target. ... I just get the craziest things on the radio sometimes.  Just people second guessing.  If I am willing to put my initials on it, I understand the importance of making sure the rounds hit where they are supposed to hit.  I understand the consequences of civilian casualties. 
Among those who have worked with him and know him well (throughout this web log, for example), Swenson has a reputation of not suffering fools gladly.  He has been an officer oriented to the field and not staff work, focused on the mission and his men.  Apparently on more than one occasion, his field prowess has been overlooked while he was criticised for his haircut (from the photos, within regs but barely).  Swenson is not the sort of person who would be labeled a political ticket-puncher.  He left the Army last February and is residing in Washington state, and is currently ‘unavailable for comment’.

One of the major tenets I learned during my military career was that the purpose of higher headquarters is to support lower headquarters and their troops.  This is the essence of accountability – whatever mission is assigned to the lower echelons nevertheless remains the responsibility of the original commander too.  There should be a militarily reasonable chance that the assigned unit can accomplish the mission, particularly supported and coordinated by the commander’s staff in the rear.  Too often have I had conversations of this sort (though certainly not to the degree of the situation like Swenson’s) where the main purpose in the mind of the Bunker Buddha on the other end of the radio was to make sure that we knew that he was the one in charge, not that he was there for support.

This glaring omission of ignoring Swenson’s actions has percolated outside the immediate command.  More light was brought to bear after the comments of the equally blunt Sgt Meyer, who said the lack of some sort of valour award for Swenson was “ridiculous”, adding, “I’ll put it this way.  If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Marine General John Allen, top commander in Afghanistan, took a personal interest in the firefight and re-opened the record.  “Given the four-star general’s personal interest, sworn statements attesting to Capt. Swenson’s valor were quickly found.”  It was General Allen, not anyone in the Army chain of command there, who recommended Swenson for the Medal of Honor, overcoming the silent objections of those who felt that Swenson exceeded his place by pointing out the "negligent" leadership that "led directly to loss of life on the battlefield".

Further details about Swenson’s role in the fight will be forthcoming, but it is rewarding to all of us that someone such as this receives recognition despite the efforts of the political creatures who haunt the ranks of the military.

Update:  Welcome, fans of Ruptured Duck, and I appreciate the recognition.  I'm a fan of yours as well.

Update:  The case still continues without resolution but the clock is ticking.  The investigation just results in more questions.

Update:  Finally, Captain Swenson is to receive the Medal of Honor.



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