President Obama on Tuesday awarded the nation’s highest military honor to William Swenson, a former Army captain credited with risking his own life to save those of his fellow soldiers and to recover the bodies of four Americans killed during one of the deadliest battles of the war in Afghanistan.
Swenson is the first Army officer to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam war, and the second recipient to have fought in the Battle of Ganjgal, where more than 60 well-armed Taliban insurgents swarmed a team of Afghan soldiers and their U.S. advisers four years ago. Retired Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer also received the award in 2011 for his actions during the ambush.
“Our nation needs this ceremony today,” said Obama from the East Room during Tuesday’s event. “In moments like this, 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 obligation to each other, not only when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard. Maybe especially when it’s hard.”
The Battle of Ganjgal lasted seven hours on Sept. 8, 2009, though perhaps its most searing image occurred at hour two of the firefight. A helmet camera captured Swenson kissing the forehead of Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook while helping to load him into the rescue helicopter. Westbrook, who had been shot in the neck, died a month later of complications from a blood transfusion.
His widow, Charlene Westbrook, was at the White House Tuesday along with other family members and soldiers who fought with Swenson. President Obama asked that they stand for a moment of recognition.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Swenson said the memory of kissing Westbrook had faded away.
“You could have told me it happened, and I wouldn’t have believed you,” said the 34-year-old. “But it did, and it was captured on film. And it offered a glimpse of the humanity that does occur on battlefields.
Swenson’s nomination for the award was delayed for years, after he criticized the Army for providing insufficient air and artillery support. Two other officers were reprimanded for what Swenson says were efforts to discredit him. Swenson has said that the account of the battle given by fellow Medal of Honor recipient, Dakota Meyer, was exaggerated and misleading.
In addition to compassion on the battlefield, Swenson is also symbol for the struggles military veterans face reintegrating into civilian life. Since retiring in 2011, Swenson has been unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans who served in Iraq, Aghanistan, or both had an unemployment rate of 10.9% in August 2012, well above the national rate.
Swenson lives is Seattle, and is described (by President Obama) as “a pretty low-key guy.”