Medal of Honor Awarded Today, and Another Take on a Controversial Fight

Capt. William D. Swenson (far right) talks with Soldiers while in support of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) in Afghanistan. Swenson served as a mentor for the Afghan Border Police. (Pic: US Army)

Later today, former Army Capt. William Swenson will head over to the White House where president Obama will drape the Medal of Honor around his neck.

Swenson earned the nation’s highest military honor for actions undertaken during a bloody and controversial 7-hour gunfight between about 60 Taliban fighters and a group of Afghan soldiers and Border Police, who were backed up by a handful of US Army and Marine Corps advisers in the Ganjgal Valley in eastern Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009.

Five Americans and at least ten Afghan troops were killed, with dozens more wounded.

The now-infamous ambush of the US/Afghan team on an early morning mission to confer with village leaders has already produced one Medal of Honor–given to Marine Corps Cpl. Dakota Meyer in September 2011–and a scathing series of stories by Jonathan Landay, a reporter for McClatchy newspapers who was embedded with the Marines during the fight and who has called some of Meyer’s descriptions of what happened “untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated.”

On Monday, Landay published another story making his case, this time relying on the Army’s official narrative of the battle along with images from newly released video of the fight that he says “conflict with the version of the incident in Marine Corps and White House accounts of how Meyer, now 25, of Columbia, Ky., came to be awarded the nation’s highest military decoration for gallantry.”

Swenson has more quietly taken issue with parts of Meyer’s story as well, and the narrative that the Army published earlier this week on its MoH Web site tells Swenson’s story in the kind of detail we haven’t seen in Army narratives of MoH awards.

Swenson’s page posted online last week includes maps, pictures, computer-generated images, and diagrams that describe the flow of the battle in a streamlined, interactive presentation. The Washington Post reported this week that Swenson pushed the Army to include the pictures and the diagrams, though he warned that his story “is not going to mutually support other stories.”

That was a quiet swipe at Meyer’s story, which doesn’t jibe with Swenson or the Army’s account of what happened as the Marine and the soldier braved enemy fire time and again to pull US and Afghan troops out of the worst of the fighting, while searching for a group of Marines that had gone missing.

Whoever story is closer to the truth–and combat narratives are famously inaccurate, with as many versions of a story as there are participants– there is one thing that isn’t in dispute: On Sept. 8 2009, Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8 was overrun by Taliban fighters, with 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton losing their lives, along with US Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who later died in a hospital from his wounds.

A gripping video has also recently emerged of Swenson helping his wounded friend Westbrook onto a medical evacuation helicopter, and leaning over to kiss him on the head just before it lifted off as Swenson returned to the fight on the ground. Westbrook left behind a wife and three children.

The most tragic parts of the American survivors’ stories, at least, all agree on the fight’s human toll.

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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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