Retired US Army Capt William Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor yesterday for his conduct during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2009. What makes Swenson’s actions even more remarkable than the fact he’s now only the sixth living recipient of the medal is the way cameras captured part of the action that earned him the medal.
What you’re watching up top is the Battle of Ganjgal, from which Swenson becomes the second soldier to be awarded the US military’s highest honour, after Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer.
Ambushed on his way to a meeting on September 9, 2009, Swenson raced into the open to rescue a wounded comrade, tossed a grenade at advancing enemy forces, then jumped in a couple of vehicles to drive around and rescue other casualties. Once he’d seen them off on a medical chopper, he returned to the fight for a further six hours.
The video above, captured by the chopper crew, shows Swenson dropping off one of those wounded, Sgt 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook (around 2:39), who he then kisses on the head. Westbrook would later die of his wounds.
The footage was actually released by Westbrook’s widow. Because Swenson was able to get him medical attention, he was kept alive long enough to be able to say “goodbye” to his wife.
Below you can read President Obama’s recount of the battle, which is just…wow.
I want to take you back to that September morning four years ago. It’s around sunrise. A column of Afghan soldiers and their American advisors are winding their way up a narrow trail towards a village to meet with elders. But just as the first soldier reaches the outskirts of the village, all hell breaks loose.
Almost instantly, three Marines and a Navy corpsman [CORE-man] at the front of the column are surrounded. Will and the soldiers in the center of the column are pinned down. Rocket-propelled grenade, mortar, and machine gun fire is pouring in from three sides.
As he returns fire, Will calls for air support. But his initial requests are denied — Will and his team are too close to the village. Then Will learns that his noncommissioned officer, Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, has been shot in the neck. So Will breaks across 50 meters of open space, bullets biting all around. Lying on his back, he presses a bandage to Kenneth’s wound with one hand and calls for a Medevac with the other, trying to keep his buddy calm.
By this time, the enemy has gotten even closer — just 20 or 30 meters away. Over the radio, they’re demanding the Americans surrender. Will stops treating Kenneth long enough to respond — by lobbing a grenade.
Finally, after more than an hour and a half of fighting, air support arrives. Will directs them to nearby targets. Then it’s time to move. Exposing himself again to enemy fire, Will helps carry Kenneth the length of more than two football fields, down steep terraces, to that helicopter. And then, in the moment captured by those cameras, Will leans in to say goodbye.
But more Americans — and more Afghans — are still out there. So Will does something incredible. He jumps behind the wheel of an unarmored Ford Ranger pickup truck. A Marine gets in the passenger seat. And they drive that truck — a vehicle designed for the highway — straight into the battle.
Twice, they pick up injured Afghan soldiers — bullets whizzing past them, slamming into the pickup truck. Twice they bring them back. When the truck gives out, they grab a Humvee. The Marine by Will’s side has no idea how they survived. But, he says, “by that time it didn’t matter. We [were] not leaving any soldiers behind.”
Finally, a helicopter spots those four missing Americans — hours after they were trapped in the opening ambush. So Will gets in another Humvee, with a crew that includes Dakota Meyer. And together, they drive. Past enemy fighters. Up through the valley. Exposed once more.
When they reach the village, Will jumps out — drawing even more fire, dodging even more bullets. But they reach those Americans, lying where they fell. Will and the others carry them out, one-by-one. They bring their fallen brothers home.
President Obama Awards the Medal of Honor to Captain William Swenson [White House, via Motherboard]