The Military Cheated an Afghanistan Vet Out of a Congressional Medal of Honor

It’s difficult to describe the chaos of combat. It’s nearly impossible to recall everything that happens in the adrenaline-fueled moments of life and death, especially the sights, sounds, and smells. It’s sometimes troubling to relate the harrowing and haunting images that replay in the mind, over and over, afterwards. 

It’s even more challenging to defend the actions of our own military when one service member’s valiant efforts – “above and beyond” – are recognized with the presentation of the nation’s highest award, while another service member’s bravery is denied, politicized, and covered up.

This much we know from Jonathan Landy, from McClatchy news service, an embedded reporter at the scene of the battle: On September 8, 2009, just 10 miles from the Pakistani border in a small little village called Ganjgal, Afghanistan, our military forces (US Army and US Marine Corps personnel) in support of the Afghan National Army (ANA) were ambushed by between 50 and 60 Taliban fighters. Four Marines were killed. Three Americans and 19 Afghans were wounded.  U.S. forces later recovered the bodies of two insurgents, although they believe that more were killed. Eight ANA troops and the Marine commander's Afghan interpreter also died in the ambush and in the subsequent battle that raged from dawn until 2 p.m. 

In addition to two Medal of Honor nominations, the battle produced two Navy Crosses – the second highest U.S. military decoration for gallantry – eight Bronze Stars and nine Purple Hearts. After two military investigations, two Army officers were reprimanded for dereliction of duty for spurning calls by Army leaders and others for air, artillery, and ground support. It was also the largest instance of U.S. service members assigned as trainers to the Afghan National Army being killed in action in a single incident since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

From the written accounts of the survivors, it appears that indirect and air-delivered fires were denied to our troops in contact because the Taliban had initially ambushed them, using a village as cover, and the requested aid would fall outside the “rules of engagement” mandated by higher headquarters. The forces found themselves in a trap, and it was suspected that someone in the ANA had supplied information about the U.S. forces raid to local Taliban leaders. The result was a killing zone of intense and unrelenting gunfire and rocket barrages from Afghan insurgents hidden in the mountainsides and in a fortress-like village where women and children were replenishing their ammunition.

As tragic as it was, we had a saying in my old unit: “while swimming in shark infested waters, it’s not uncommon to be bitten by a shark.” But this was different. These waters had been baited, and the support that had been promised for this mission, such as artillery and mortar support, air gunships covering fire, and air extrication, were non-existent or slow coming. There was a “breakdown” in the system that day, and as it turns out, there was plenty of blame to go around.

Our nation’s military has experienced an evolution in thinking – much of it groupthink – during this past decade of two simultaneous wars abroad. For years, the military has fought against the stigma of an embarrassing characterization that it is a “zero-defect” military, described by former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry in August 1996 when he warned that "demanding such a rigid standard produces timid leaders afraid to make tough decisions in crisis, unwilling to take the risks necessary for success in military operations.” He continued, “this zero defects mindset creates conditions that will lead inevitably to failure.”

Generations of officers and senior non-commissioned officers trained during the Cold War created, contributed, or were victimized by this zero-defect culture. Retired General William G. Pagonis, director of logistics during the Gulf War of 1991, wrote about the time he led his small company into crossfire to rescue stranded soldiers, against the orders of his commander: “following a time-honored tradition in the [Vietnam-era] military, I developed ‘radio trouble’ – that is, I turned the communications gear off …” and led a volunteer team to the rescue. The only way to prevent a “defect” was to take risk and disobey an order.

But with superior and ultra-reliable communications equipment, and the advanced ability to “see the battle space” in real time through drones or camera-mounted aircraft, or even advanced satellite optics, there can be no “radio trouble” that allows the on-the-ground leader to execute his mission without someone, somewhere looking over his shoulder. During the ambush at Ganjgal, much of the tragedy resulted from second-guessing by military leaders comfortably situated miles away in air-conditioned tactical operations centers who, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly by the U.S. fighters on the ground that they weren't near the village.

In addition to the extended and excruciating ferociousness of this battle, the ambush at Ganjgal has been described as one of the most remarkable battles of the Afghan war for its extraordinary heroism and deadly incompetence. It produced dozens of casualties, career-killing reprimands, and a slew of commendations for valor. They included two Medal of Honor nominations, one for Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer and one for Army Captain William Swenson. On September 15, 2011, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Corporal Meyer saying, “You did your duty, above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions with the Marine Corp you love. Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today.”

But the President did not present any medals to Captain Swenson. In fact, Captain Swenson had resigned from the Army and returned to his home in Seattle, Washington. Swenson, who served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, was an adviser to 30 Afghan Border Police officers when he joined some 60 Afghan troops and their Marine trainers on Sept. 8, 2009 for what was expected to be a low-risk mission to Ganjgal.

According to eyewitness accounts, Captain Swenson fought gallantly during the furious six-hour gunfight with 50 to 60 Taliban ambushers in which he “repeatedly charged through intense fire to retrieve wounded and dead.” Not only did he risk his life to save the lives of other, Captain Swenson stayed in the fight and repeatedly called his chain of command for fire support, ammunition resupply, and any other weapons systems support that could be employed to extricate himself and his team from this deadly ambush. After he was told he that he would receive support in “5 minutes,” hours passed before Scout helicopters showed up so Captain Swenson could direct their fires.

“Yet months after the first living Army officer in some 40 years was put in for the nation's highest military award for gallantry, his nomination vanished into a bureaucratic black hole.” The U.S. military conducted an investigation after wind of this insulting oversight was made available to media outlets. “The U.S. military in Afghanistan said an investigation had found that it [Swenson’s award nomination request for the Medal of Honor] was 'lost' in the approval process, something that several experts dismissed as improbable, saying that hasn't happened since the awards system was computerized in the mid-1970s.”

Why would someone want to intentionally “lose” Swenson’s award nomination? According to McClatchy, “the investigation [in Afghanistan and in the U.S.] uncovered evidence that suggests that as Corporal Meyer's Medal of Honor nomination from the same battle sailed toward approval … there may have been an effort to kill Swenson's nomination." The investigation also uncovered evidence that Swenson's original nomination was downgraded to a lesser award, in violation of Army and Defense Department regulations.

There’s no doubt, from my experience and from that of others in senior leadership positions, that the military’s award process is deeply flawed. It is a system of inflated submissions to ensure that commanders’ favorites get the best results at upcoming promotion boards, and it is used as punishment. Awards are withheld not necessarily for less than honorable service, but rather to send a message to potential awardees who are denied awards or given lesser awards that they were “not appreciated” and probably should find employment elsewhere.  

I once watched a senior field grade officer receive an Army Commendation Medal for planning the Army’s birthday party while in Iraq. This officer had a cake sent over from home. The very same officer also received a Bronze Star because he, well, he did his job. He wasn’t any more special than anyone else. He was just well-liked. Indeed, if you’re an officer in today’s conflict who doesn’t get a bronze star, you’re most likely non-competitive for the next promotion, although you may have been out there in the thick of the action while your colleague sat in the International Zone making PowerPoint presentations and eating Baskin-Robbins all day!

Swenson was the former sort of soldier. Although he was out in the extreme heat of the desert facing the constant hazards of combat each and every day, his Medal of Honor award nomination was “lost.” Although the official investigation could not determine whether there was an authenticated effort to kill Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination, there are several possible motives for such an effort to be made. Interviewed by military investigators five days after the battle, Swenson implicitly criticized top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan by blasting their rules of engagement. Angered that his repeated calls for artillery and air support were denied during the ambush, he charged that in trying to prevent civilian casualties for political reasons, the rules were costing U.S. soldiers' lives.

Or perhaps there is something else at work here. The investigation into Swenson’s “lost” award nomination intimated that “clearing Marine Corporal Meyer's award would have pacified Marine leaders who blamed Marine casualties on the Army's failure to provide timely air and ground support. Moreover, [Marine leaders] were angered by the first investigation of the battle - conducted solely by the Army - which they considered unbalanced. And then the Army nominated one of its own for the Medal of Honor.” That kind of “home cooking” doesn’t sit quite right with anyone, especially Marines. Maybe the 30-year-old Captain Swenson’s award packet became another victim of the ambush at Ganjgal, no triggered pulled, just a delete key pushed.

Our “zero-defect” military has devolved into a “zero-detractor” military. Oh sure, a young officer might survive a mistake today that would have certainly ruined his career prior to 2001, but now, the death knell to one’s military service is to criticize the very system that they are charged to lead and to make better. The message is clear: shut up, don’t critique or criticize, do what you’re told, don’t embarrass your leaders, and you’ll most likely advance. Challenge the conventional thinking or point out operational or tactical mistakes that could have been avoided (thus saving lives versus costing lives), and well, you’ll not only be denied any award you’re due, but we’ll make sure you understand the implicit message as well: Get out.

Miraculously, Swenson's nomination was resubmitted last year. President Barack Obama must approve it before September 8, the third anniversary of the battle, or it expires and can only be revived by an act of Congress. Obtained by media sources, Swenson’s award’s draft narrative includes, “The need for a ground recovery of all remaining casualties had now become clear.  Facing this extreme and dire circumstance, and going above and beyond the call of duty, CPT Swenson gathered available combat power to lead a return [to continue the fight]." Swenson's draft citation – a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy – praised him for "extraordinary heroism, exceptional leadership amidst chaos and death, and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty."

It’s well-known that the military services “devote enormous energy and attention to shepherding Medal of Honor nominations to approval, especially given the rarity with which the medals have been awarded in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Ten have been conferred, only three of them to living recipients, prompting congressional hearings on complaints from lawmakers, military commanders, and veterans' groups that "the requirements have been quietly tightened, a charge the Pentagon denies.”

I don’t believe that anyone disputes the heroism displayed by Corporal Dakota Meyer that day in September 2007. Captain Swenson's heroic actions are not in dispute either. This story isn’t about his Medal of Honor, or about the question of why a Marine would be given one and an Army Officer would not. No, this is the story of how bravery can be swallowed up by the bureaucracy.