Wednesday, August 22, 2012

‘Flawed’ Medal of Honor Process Challenged for Swenson, Peralta (Update: Swenson's Package at the White House)

I have written before on the subject of the actions of former Army Captain Will Swenson at the Battle of Ganjgal in September 2009, alongside Medal of Honor recipient Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer, as well as those of the last moments of the late Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta at the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004.  In both cases, their actions warrant a recommendation for the Medal of Honor from even the most casual of observers, but the approval for awarding such a high honor is understandably vetted through a long precise process, all the more reason for the sake of insuring that the actions of the recipients are “above and beyond the call of duty” and are worthy of the honor and acclaim from a grateful nation.

Captain Will Swenson and Sergeant Rafael Peralta

But rather than a necessary investigation into the circumstances of the incidents, the process itself has now been called into question.  Representative Duncan D Hunter (R-California) has questioned the Pentagon awards process, calling upon Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to give “fair and due consideration” into these two cases that have become controversial. 

The first involves Captain Swenson, who performed in many respects actions that were similar to those of Sergeant Meyer, accompanied by two Marines, Captain Amedola Fabayo and Gunnery Sergeant Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who each received the Navy Cross (the nation’s second-highest award for the Navy and Marine Corps) for their actions.  The enormous discrepancy between the recognition of these three (among others in the battle) and the complete lack of recognition for Captain Swenson was startling, particularly after Sgt Meyer’s comments during the run-up to his Medal of Honor presentation, that it was “ridiculous” that Swenson had received nothing, and, “I’ll put it this way.  If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today.” 

A key element in the story was the fact that Captain Swenson was calling for artillery and air support from higher command, to little avail, and that he was blistering in his remarks (‘frank and candid’ would be the polite terms) afterward during the subsequent investigation into the failure of the 32nd Infantry, 10th Mountain Division Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to provide adequate and sufficient support to the battle, who instead questioned Swenson’s assessment of the battle and the accuracy of his reporting.  Swenson called into question the effectiveness of the personnel manning the TOC and directly criticized their complacency and, by implication, the new Rules of Engagement (ROE) recently implemented.  His remarks were material in the investigation that resulted in at least two officers receiving Letters of Reprimand (effectively ending their careers) for their “negligent” actions that “directly resulted in loss of life on the battlefield”. 

Marine General John Allen was the commander in Afghanistan and was struck by this apparent damnatio memoriae of Captain Swenson, and instituted an investigation into the situation.  The initial response from the Army chain of command was that Swenson’s MoH packet was “lost”, a unique and strange occurrence since the process was computerized in 2007, but a duplicate cache of documents (perhaps the original input into the computer file) quickly appeared after the General showed an interest.  General Allen then initiated his own recommendation for Captain Swenson. 

The subsequent investigation revealed that a MoH recommendation for Swenson had been filed by Lt Col Frederick O’Donnell on 18 December 2009, and was next shown by PowerPoint slide to have been received at US Forces – Afghanistan on 19 May 2010.  There is no explanation as to why it took five months for an electronic file to arrive at the headquarters.  A slide on 21 August notes that the recommendation had been downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross but that USFOR-A was out of certificates and would return to the matter “ASAP”.  A note from the investigation by Col James Chevallier III states that USFOR-A “does not have the authority to downgrade a MoH”.  Next is a slide dated 28 August that says that the “nomination was downgraded to DSC and was forwarded to CENTCOM”.  The file disappears thereafter, and when asked how a file from the computerized awards system could simply vanish, there was “no explanation”.  General David Petraeus, who was ISAF commander at the time of the staffing of Swenson’s award recommendation, says that he “has no recollection of seeing the packet”. 

Inexplicably, the investigation concludes, “The investigation didn’t find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing or evidence that anyone downgraded the nomination, but there were failures at multiple levels in tracking and processing the award.  That can’t excuse what happened, and we have made adjustments to prevent it from happening again.” [emphasis mine]  It goes on to determine that the nomination was not “staffed to completion” (well, that’s obvious) and was “lost” in part due to high staff turnover rate, yet again does not explain how this unique circumstance, involving this “high profile, high priority” nomination that disappeared within a computerized process, could have happened. 

Some of these stories that outline this update go on to include speculation about discrepancies between the Army and the Marine Corps accounts about what exactly happened, specifically as it regards the accounts for Sgt Meyer and CPT Swenson.  Statements by the Marine Corps and the President (who obtained his information from the Marines) differ from other accounts, and these stories suggest some political angle at play between the services, casting doubt on the actions of Sgt Meyer.  They are unclear, yet should not be, that these discrepancies deal with the publicity leading up to the award ceremony for Sgt Meyer – not the citation itself.  Whatever embellishments have been added for the sake of publicity fall into the same category as the political exploitation and mishandling of the Jessica Lynch story.

These press accounts want to conflate the discrepancies in the publicity for Meyer with the actions of Meyer, and speak of dark conspiracies and cover-up as some sort of contest between the Marines and Army, competing over medals and recognition, to explain the strange handling of Swenson’s packet, hinting that Swenson’s story will contrast somehow with Meyer’s.  But Meyer has nothing to do with this other than to help point out what I believe to be a petty viciousness on the part of some within the Army who would squash someone who didn’t play by the rules.  More credible is the idea that Swenson’s recommendation was side-lined or downgraded in retaliation for his devastating statements during the investigation into the ineffectiveness of the TOC.  Swenson named names, not just for individuals but for a command structure, and it looks as if there are those who want to hold him to account.  But the new awards system and the congressional inquiry make a stark contrast between the three Marines who were recognized and Captain Swenson who has been ignored, and the Army Times has weighed in recently on the subject of "How the Army Failed Capt. Will Swenson".  As Goethe said, "There is strong shadow where there is much light."
In the case of Sgt Peralta, he was recommended for a Medal of Honor for his last actions in a fight against a fortified position in Fallujah.  Several Marines were engaged in close combat with jihadis in a room when Peralta received a mortal shot to the head and fell.  Several eye-witness accounts state that a grenade then landed near him and his fellow Marines, but Peralta swept the grenade to him and he absorbed the blast with his body.  During the subsequent investigation, one forensic pathologist expressed doubt about Peralta’s ability to have done this based on the severity of his wounds at the time.  Due to this one vote, there was no unanimity on the panel and ultimately Peralta was awarded the Navy Cross, which his family has refused to accept.  (There is an attempt in places to blame then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but his recommendation was constrained by the rules of the process.)  But video evidence surfaced soon thereafter that seriously discredited the report of the pathologist on the panel, and another forensic pathologist testified that Peralta’s wounds were not necessarily incapacitating.  A bipartisan collection of congressional members from around the home of Peralta’s parents has requested that the case be re-opened. 

Representative Hunter’s letter takes the Pentagon to task for both of these cases and concludes:
Peralta’s Medal of Honor is long overdue while Swenson never received the thorough and unbiased review he deserved.  There are others who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan who fit into these same categories, but a favorable decision for Peralta in particular will go a long way toward restoring credibility to a process that has failed to deliver the proper recognition for heroic acts worthy of the Medal of Honor.
The President has until 8 September, the third anniversary of the Battle of Ganjgal, to sign off on a Medal of Honor for CPT Swenson.  Otherwise, it will take an act of congress to reinstate the packet.  In this election year, it will be interesting to see how Obama plays this, if at all.  (Note: a good source of information on Will Swenson is from his friends at Team Ruptured Duck, who include this testimonial.)

There are those who say that the changed nature of the two wars argue against awarding the same proportion of medals as previous conflicts, but only ten instances of the MoH for these two wars sounds strangely small.  The attitude, however, does echo the disdain that Obama and his administration have felt for the American military, by taking credit for ending an Iraq War that the Bush administration had essentially won by the summer of 2008, and of simply walking away from the Afghan strategy and handing the country back to the Islamic Supremacists and warlords of before, on a schedule announced by Obama from practically the very beginning of his term.  If the Obama team holds our national security and those who protect it in such contempt, it is no wonder that downplaying the military and their actions in these conflicts of this crusade (yes, that is what it is) comes so naturally to them.  The press will not discuss the patent distinction between the constant bellowing about the military in the Bush years and the passive treatment of the Obama term.  Extolling our heroes will draw too much attention to their dog that should continue to lie sleeping.

And if we are to somehow rectify the lack of proper recognition for Captain Swenson and Sergeant Peralta, then we should also correct the case of the sacrifice of Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe as well.  Or, for that matter, how many others?

Update: A partial collection of Captain Swenson's Band of Brothers reports that his recommendation, whatever it was, has been delivered on time:
Team Ruptured Duck has learned that Will’s recommendation for the Congressional Medal of Honor made it to the White House in time to meet the suspense.  We have no indication of whether or not it was signed – or what happened to it after its arrival, but for our purposes it’s all the same.  Our concern has been that Will might be denied the fair consideration he was denied before.  As it appears, justice has finally been done. 
Let us hope that, after all this time and the questionable way that it has been handled, the recommendation is looked upon favorably.

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

Update:  Captain Swenson received the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony on 15 October 2013.  The press, though, is still trying to milk some controversy from the account of the battle.

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