President Obama awards the Medal of Honor to Army Capt. William Swenson… (Olivier Douliery / Abaca…)
WASHINGTON — Army Capt. William Swenson on Tuesday became the sixth living veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be awarded the Medal of Honor, but the honor came after more than four years of controversy over the battle in which he risked his life saving fellow servicemen.
Swenson stood beside President Obama in the White House's East Room as the president recounted Swenson's actions during the Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009, when he repeatedly ran back into the line of fire to retrieve fallen soldiers.
Obama cited a video captured by a soldier's helmet camera, in which Swenson can be seen carrying another soldier to safety aboard a helicopter.
"And then amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he does something unexpected — he leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head," Obama said. "A simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother-in-arms. As the door closes and the helicopter takes off, he turns and goes back the way he came, back into the heat of battle."
Obama said that in the history of the awarding of nearly 3,500 Medals of Honor, "this may be the first time that we can actually bear witness to a small fraction of those actions for ourselves."
The president noted that another veteran of the same battle, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who received the Medal of Honor two years ago, was not in attendance Tuesday. Swenson has been skeptical of Meyer's accounts of that day, and critical of the failure of higher-ups to approve airstrikes on the Taliban fighters who attacked them.
Swenson retired from the military in February 2011, but he is seeking to return to active duty, which is rare for a Medal of Honor recipient.
When introducing Swenson, who lives in Seattle, Obama described him as a "low-key" guy who would rather be outdoors than in front of cameras.
"In moments like this," Obama said, "Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best: a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another. Not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard. Especially when it's hard."
After the ceremony, Swenson told reporters: "This award was earned with a team, a team of our finest ... standing side by side.
"This medal represents them," he said. "It represents us."
But the award was a long time coming for Swenson, and for a while it looked like it might not come at all.
Swenson's nomination got "lost" in the Army's computer system. The Army said an investigation revealed that the error was because of a turnover in personnel.
"Because of a turnover it just got misplaced and it was resubmitted," Army spokesman Troy Rolan said.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) has been at the forefront of pressing the Army and the Defense Department for answers about Swenson's nomination, and thinks there was more involved than its being misplaced.
Swenson's questioning of the military leadership and rules of engagement "was seen as problematic," said Joe Kasper, Hunter's deputy chief of staff.
"Two officers were reprimanded for their poor judgment," Hunter wrote in an article released by his office. "For Swenson's part, his Medal of Honor nomination disappeared. Records were removed from the awards database and Gen. David Petraeus, who signed the Medal of Honor package, suddenly had no recollection of ever putting his signature on the nomination. There are some things military commanders don't forget. Endorsing a Medal of Honor package is one of them."
Meyer denied a request for an interview. But he wrote Tuesday on Twitter: "It's great to see Capt. Swenson finally getting recognized for his heroics. I wish him nothing but the best in life."
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.