A former Army captain who risked his life repeatedly to rescue wounded U.S. and Afghan troops during one of the deadliest ambushes of the Afghanistan war was presented Tuesday with the nation's highest military honor for his bravery.
Retired Army Captain William Swenson, 34, held back tears as he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on Tuesday in a White House ceremony recognizing his actions on Sept. 8, 2009, when a protracted battle against Taliban insurgents near the Pakistan border claimed the lives of four Americans, 10 Afghan army soldiers, and an interpreter.
Swenson, a Seattle native, was part of an American team training Afghan security forces at the time when the insurgents attacked Gangjal, a village in Afghanistan's Kunar province.
Again and again during the seven-hour firefight, Swenson ran into insurgent fire to evacuate injured U.S. and Afghan soldiers.
"As one of his fellow soldiers later said, Will did things that nobody else would ever do, and he did it for his guys and for everybody on the ground, to get them out," Obama said before placing the award around Swenson's neck.
It was the first time actions that led to a Medal of Honor have been captured on camera, Obama noted: Swenson's bravery was taped by the cameras mounted on the helmets of evacuation helicopter pilots. He was seen on video bringing a wounded a soldier to the helicopter and kissing him on the head as he put him inside.
"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 — a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms," Obama said.
Swenson recalled the horrific September morning in an interview with NBC News.
"If you tried to get up and move, you could expect to have bullets licking at your feet," he said.
As for the kiss on the head of the fellow soldier, he said, "I wanted to make clear to him he'd done good. You're going home."
In addition to fellow Marines and Army soldiers who had been in battle with Swenson, the families of four of the Americans who lost their lives in the battle attended his ceremony. When Obama asked the families to stand for applause, Swenson struggled to hold back tears.
"Will also reached out to the families of the four Americans who gave their lives that day," Obama said. "And I'm quoting Will now: 'We have never met. We have never spoken. But I would like to believe that I know something about each of you through the actions of your loved ones on that day. They were part of a team, and you are now part of that team.'"
During the ambush, Swenson refused to give up on his comrades. Taliban fighters demanded he surrender; he tossed a hand grenade at them and continued dodging bullets so he could come to the aid of wounded soldiers.
"They were just overrun. You could clearly see they put up a hell of a fight," Swenson said of the four soldiers who died.
On his last trip in to rescue wounded and recover bodies of the dead, Swenson was joined by then-Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who received the Medal of Honor in 2011 for his own heroic actions on that day.
Tuesday marked only the second time in nearly half a century that the Medal of Honor has been awarded to two survivors of the same battle.
According to The Washington Post, the two men have a rocky relationship now. Meyer, 25, has written a book about the battle, "Into the Fire," and has said that he has plans to run for Congress.
Swenson, who retired from the Army in 2011, told the Post he was skeptical of Meyer's account of the harrowing day that earned them each a Medal of Honor.
Swenson has also publicly criticized the lack of air and artillery support he had as he desperately tried to radio for help but was refused combat helicopters or reinforcements. Two officers receiving reprimands following an inquiry.
Swenson is the sixth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq.
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski and NBC's Courtney Kube contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Reuters also contributed.
First published October 15 2013, 3:17 PM