On Tuesday afternoon Captain William Swenson, U.S. Army Ret., was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House. He received the medal for his personal actions during the Battle of Ganjgal in early September of 2008. These actions include sprinting into the open and dragging a man wounded in the neck to safety, driving back into the ambush to recover the bodies of his men, and responding to the Taliban’s surrender demands by chucking a grenade at them. A second serviceman, Sergeant Dakota Meyer, has already been awarded the Medal of Honor for the same engagement.
The battle took place in close proximity to a sizeable and “friendly” village. The U.S. troops and their ANA counterparts were there that day to conduct a friendly engagement (have a business meeting) with the village elders. Unfortunately the mission’s operational security was compromised (we assume). The Taliban was waiting, having situated hundreds of fighters on hillsides surrounding the American’s intended route. They waited until the Americans were in the intended kill zone and initiated a 3 sided ambush that immediately inflicted casualties. Portions of the American unit were cut off from the main element and overrun. All in all 5 Americans and scores of ANA were killed in the ambush.
The type of team that Swenson and Meyer were part of was designed, in theory, to act in an advisory capacity to the ANA unit they were assigned to. However in reality the Americans organized and lead the missions, using ANA soldiers to fill in gaps in manpower. Historically these PTT teams tended to operate with a good deal of autonomy outside the normal chain of command (thus outside normal means of support). The teams are small in size. Also due to terrorists abilities to infiltrate the ANA, they are easier to track.
Many of the most severe enemy victories in Iraq and Afghanistan have been inflicted on similarly organized PTT and MIT teams. These tactics have since been revised and it’s rare now for such small elements to operate in this manner. Such missions are left to special operations forces and larger conventional infantry units.
Because of the unit’s nature, it may have been difficult for the far flung and far removed senior unit leaders to grasp the reality of a situation on the ground. The mission went from a walk in the park to worst case scenario in the time it takes an AK round to travel 100 yards. Often times the brevity of the situation doesn’t sink in fast enough for those not in the middle of it.
Based on the battles proximity to the village (and hopefully a misinterpretation of the circumstances), the decision was made to deny support 5 times by Swenson’s count. The officers involved cite the 2008-2009 strategic level decision to tighten of the ROE (rules of engagement) as their guiding force in making that call, wanting to avoid civilian casualties.
Once it clicked with someone higher up that an American unit had basically been overrun and that contact had been lost with multiple troops whose status was unknown, rotary and fixed wing assets were tasked to provide support. This gave the surviving forces a reprieve but was not singularly responsible for turning the tide of the battle. Capt. Swenson took command on the ground after a Major had been incapacitated. He consolidated his remaining men and evacuated the wounded. A portion of that has been caught on video. He then requested permission to move forward into the village to try and reach the American element that had been cut off in the initial ambush. That request was repeatedly denied as well, possibly considered prudent since approving such a request was tantamount to approving a suicide mission.
That is when Capt. Swenson and Cpl. Meyer made the audacious and heroic decision to disregard their orders, mount up on lightly armored Humvees, and press on with their “plan”. They encountered stiff resistance and spent almost 12 hours in a pitched close quarters gunfight, but miraculously their decision did not get them killed and resulted in the return of all American servicemen (dead and alive) from the field of battle.
In the years since the battle both Swenson and Meyer have officially criticized the senior leaders of their unit for their decisions. These reports were met with early resistance, but over time the Army has accepted their truth and officially reprimanded two of the officers involved. An official reprimand is more severe than the name intones. One of this magnitude can easily end an officer’s career and force them out of the military. Further accusations were tossed around in military circles and the media that Captain Swenson’s MOH nomination was “lost” on purpose. This is the documentation used to determine if an award is given and what that award will be. It must be written by the nominees chain of command ASAP, when those present for the actions are still available (and alive in previous wars) and their recollection of the events are still “clear”.
Capt. Swenson’s accounts take the criticism a step further, noting discrepancies in the eventually produced report that was used as the official record of events when awarding the MOH to Sgt. Meyer. The first notable discrepancy is who drove the Humvee. At one point in the battle Sgt. Meyer is credited with getting in a Humvee and driving it back into the fight to save wounded comrades and collect the bodies of fallen Americans. Cpt. Swenson disputes the details, stating he was driving the truck and Cpl. Meyer was in the back. The other discrepancy of note is the amount of men Meyer was responsible for saving and the number of enemy he killed. Swenson calls the numbers in the report inflated. Sgt. Meyer and the Marine Corps still defend the currently accepted official record.
The differing accounts gained the attention of the press in 2010-2011. In an independent investigation it was determined that Captain Swenson’s version of events was likely more accurate. Recently, new video footage has come to light that further backs up Captain Swenson’s story. Despite the controversy over the details, Swenson does not dispute that Meyer deserved the MOH, and Meyer does not dispute that Capt. Swenson deserves one as well. After receiving his medal, Meyer was a vocal supporter of Captain Swenson’s right to one as well, stating that not having awarded one to him was a “gross oversight”. He is also quoted as saying “If it weren’t for him [Swenson], I wouldn’t be alive today.” Meyer’s spokeswoman recently made another statement on his behalf, saying that Capt. Swenson is receiving the award he deserves.
Upon receiving the Medal of Honor, Captain Swenson has requested to return to active duty with the Army. Pending the formalities, he will be commissioned as a captain or major and, finally vindicated, press on with what will no doubt prove to be an impressive military career. The annals of Army history are still being combed through, but right now the Army believes this is the first officer to return to service after receiving an MOH. Meyer took an alternate route, publishing a book about the battle and gaining fame he has used to support the military and veterans through a number of charitable acts. Though Captain Swenson argues that portions of Meyer’s book are inaccurate, the book is widely considered to have played a role in Swenson’s long awaited recognition.
It is important as Americans and veterans to remember that a piece of paper written years later about a battle in which many died and the survivors were given the biggest medal we could find for them doesn’t necessarily reflect the facts as they were, especially given the years of controversy that surrounded it’s writing. The politics are so unimportant I almost didn’t include them in the story. What’s important is what the guys on the ground said, which was pretty clear. It was as tough a fight as fights get. Most everyone was a casualty, and they were outnumbered 20 or 30 to 1. For most of the fight they were short on supplies and without support. Despite the shape of the unit and the odds facing them, a young Army officer thrust into command in the heat of battle and an infantry Marine corporal, the toughest type of Marine manufactured, made the decision to honor the single tradition that makes the American Military so formidable. They did so without fanfare or discussion, and despite the setbacks caused by bad leaders. To them, in the heat of battle, it was self-evident. We never leave a man behind.