Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Medal of Honor: Washington Post Contrives a Controversy With Capt Swenson

David Nakamura of the Washington Post has written an article published last Sunday that purports to expose a controversy swirling around differing accounts about the Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan in 2009.  The Military Times has picked up on the allegations and ran with them, citing a "rift" between Army Captain Will Swenson, due to receive the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony today, and Marine Sgt Dakota Meyer who received the MoH two years ago for his actions in the same battle. 

Captain Will Swenson

Nakamura's account maintains that "… Swenson remains skeptical of Meyer and the publicity he has sought", though Nakamura does not provide a quote from Swenson or a source.  Nakamura goes on to say that the Army Medal of Honor web site has posted an account of the battle that used information that Swenson provided, and quotes Swenson as saying that it is "not going to mutually support other stories". 

Swenson at the World War II Memorial

As for the Military Times, one must remember that it and the other Military Times sites are creatures of Gannett Publishing and are not official sites of the military.  This is not the first time that one could look askance at an account in that paper and web site.  The story by Dan Lamothe carries the headline of "Rift between Medal of Honor recipients exposed" and quotes the Nakamura line about skepticism, but goes no further in fleshing out the allegation.  While differing aspects of the battle have been questioned, nothing indicates a problem between the two men. 

Swenson at the Meyer MoH ceremony

The contention was created by Jonathan Landay, a McClatchy Newspapers reporter embedded with the composite unit involved in the battle.  Landay, who was at the scene for only the first ninety minutes of the engagement, relied on statements from Afghan troops as a principle source. 

The fact of the matter is that whatever problem exists is due to the account put together by the Public Affairs Office of the Pentagon about Meyer, and the details are minor indeed compared to the overall events in the battle.  It is journalistic fodder to drum up some sort of controversy, but the story amounts to thin gruel. 
Sergeant Dakota Meyer
One major item was the number of Americans involved in the action, initially set at 13 but later set at 11, due to the fact that two of them were considered too far away to have a direct impact.  Another contention involves how many Afghan troops were picked up and evacuated from the kill zone on how many passes of the vehicles that drove repeatedly into the area. 

Another question from Landay is whether Meyer actually disobeyed orders to enter the battle.  Accounts show that he originally requested to do so but was told to remain where he was.  After the situation developed further, he again requested to go in but did not receive a reply.  It was then that he and SSgt Chavez-Rodriguez set out into the fight.  If that is the essence of Landay's questions, then this is clearly an effort to make something from nothing. 

Armchair critics would do well to consider that when one is engaged in a fight for his life, one typically does not pause to jot down notes about what happened precisely at what time and what location, or who might be nearby.  Even at my relatively advanced age, in a profession now outside of the military, I am occasionally involved in melees in a correctional facility and I have to school myself to note who responded and what each actor did during the incident, and I typically rely on comparing notes with the others and videotape.  In situations like the Battle of Ganjgal, the stress is amplified by a magnitude or two. 

As for a contention between Meyer and Swenson, I must specify the following: 

Meyer, upon learning of his upcoming reception of the Medal of Honor, wrote a letter to Obama to argue Swenson's case, incensed as Meyer was in knowing that Swenson had received no recognition whatsoever, and included that Swenson "was the centerpiece for command and control in a raging firefight that never died down….  Swenson controlled all the helos [once they finally arrived – a major aspect of the ensuing investigation].  He picked out targets and kept situational awareness, radioing cardinal directions and distances.  Not everyone can do that when bullets are continuously hitting the side of your truck.  Swenson was not the senior commander; he just took over and everyone deferred to him.  To the extent that anyone was in charge on the chaotic battlefield over the course of six or seven hours, it was Captain Will Swenson." 

Meyer was quoted shortly thereafter as saying that it was "ridiculous" that Swenson had been ignored.  "I'll put it this way: if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be alive today." 

Meyer had the opportunity to have a 'beer summit' with the president the day prior to his ceremony, where he again lobbied on behalf of Swenson. 

Meyer has subsequently gone on to write and publish a book, Into the Fire, in conjunction with Bing West, former Assistant Secretary of Defense, in which he continues to argue for Swenson.

The effort of Meyer in supporting Swenson is not, I expect, limited to simple recognition.  There is every indication that Swenson was politically pilloried by some elements in the Army for his blistering comments in his after-action interview about the deadly lack of support from higher command, which eventually resulted in two officers receiving Letters of Reprimand, effectively ending their careers, which chided them for "negligent" leadership that "led directly to loss of life on the battlefield". 

Yet buried in the stories is the fact that the argument is with the story as published by the Public Affairs Office of the Pentagon.  No one is disputing that the actions of Sgt Meyer during the battle are worthy of a Medal of Honor; even Landay admits as much.  The later elements of these stories allege that the Marine Corps pumped up Meyer's story in an effort to have a MoH awarded to a living Marine, the first since Viet Nam, and cite the defense of the actions of the PAO by Lt Col Chris Hughes, but none of them state that Hughes is in the Army, not the Marines. 

Swenson went on to resign his commission and has been living in the area of Seattle, refusing all requests for comment until now.  He has not spoken of the controversy about his nomination or why it was lost (reason enough for a better inquiry), but one of his few recent comments is that he often escapes to the mountains near his home to find solitude in his "forced early retirement". 

A "forced early retirement"?  Now that alone is reason for a separate investigation.  Civilians can be protected as whistleblowers when they bring to light unfavorable information, as he did.  But how is Swenson any different from them?


  1. "Forced," perhaps, by the realization that he would never be promoted, or else he'd make major and that would be the end. As for the WaPo, it's not exactly home to a lot of veterans and, in any case, controversy sells better than heart-warmers.

    1. Your pondering about the phraseology of his leaving the service is a viable argument, but it is nevertheless a question that needs to be answered. Either he was directly forced out, or he was shown the handwriting on the wall, but either way, both answers need to be addressed.

      As for the WaPo and their reporters' "expertise" -- as well as all other media sources -- I am continually stupefied at the inane comments made within newspapers and their electronic equivalents, even from "war correspondents". How they can get so many elements of a story so wrong never ceases to amaze me, particularly when some of the points are so easily checked. The military is a separate culture (one of the particular topics that I write about), but the civilian reporters and the academic experts by and large simply have no clue.


Comments are welcome and discussion is open and encouraged. I expect that there will be some occasional disagreement (heaven knows why) or welcome clarification and embellishment, and such are freely solicited.

Consider that all such comments are in the public domain and are expected to be polite, even while contentious. I will delete comments which are ad hominem, as well as those needlessly profane beyond the realm of sputtering incredulity in reaction to some inanity, unless attributed to a quote.

Links to other sources are fine so long as they further the argument or expand on the discussion. All such comments and links are the responsibility of the commenter, and the mere presence herein does not necessarily constitute my agreement.

I will also delete all comments that link to a commercial site.