Last week General John Allen, USMC, recommended US Army Captain William Swenson for the Medal of Honor. This interesting announcement came about as a result of the hue-and-cry surrounding the awarding of a Medal of Honor to CPL Dakota Myer, USMC, for his heroism in action in a big battle in Konar Province in September 2009.  As recounted in the Army Times article at the link below, CPL Myer declared that CPT Swenson was as much a hero as he was.  “I’ll put it this way.  If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today,” are CPL Myer’s words.


So now we have a Marine general recommending an Army officer for a decoration that the Army didn’t see fit to award in the first place.

Among the many reasons the story intrigues me is that CPT Swenson was a fellow member of Embedded Transition Team Class 55, the advisor training course I went through at Fort Riley in the fall of 2008.  He lived with his 15-man team in the same open bay barracks as my 15-man team.  I did not live with the two teams, but I was in their bay often enough.  And our teams usually partnered for the training events arranged for us.

CPT Swenson, who had two previous deployments under his belt, affected the long hair and sideburns—as far as the regulations allow and then some–that many badass veterans of multiple combat tours sport these days.  Prickly and aloof, he was contemptuous of those who hadn’t seen as much action as him.  I suppose he found most of us naïve and the training beneath him.  I don’t remember speaking with him, and my guys didn’t like him much.  Too cool for school, they thought.

Captain William Swenson.  Photograph by Jonathan S. Landay/MCT

But let’s not dwell on trivial personal matters.

In Afghanistan, CPT Swenson was an advisor for an Afghan Border Police (ABP) unit.  Talk about independence, adventure, danger.  ABP ETTs were just out there every day, aligned with the shakiest of Afghan Security Force units, in and out of the most precarious situations, and with support and relief far away and hard to get.  Not much compared, really, certainly not my position at relatively comfy Camp Clark.

I’m thinking CPT Swenson relished his outlier status while also using it to hone a righteous anger at the bureaucratic Army, the soft Army, the garrison and FOB-bound Army.  That’s the impression one also gets from Bing West’s The Wrong War, which profiles CPT Swenson and the big battle he performed so heroically in.

The cost of all that independence—which any sane person in the Army actually craves—can be high.  For CPT Swenson, the bill came due in Konar when his repeated calls for artillery support from the big American unit in sector went unheeded.   He paid a second time when he left Afghanistan and then the Army without recognition for his courageous exploits.

For the record, I fully support all initiatives to recognize CPT Swenson for his heroism on 8 September 2009.  Whether he eventually receives the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, or a Bronze Star with V Device, we will face the slightly uncomfortable scenario of one of our Army heroes being a certified contrarian, one whom, though I don’t know for sure, but suspect, can hardly bring himself to say anything good about the Army.  We’ll have to live knowing that it took the Marines—Semper Fi—to recognize the bravery of one of our own.

Oh well.  The Army will just have to suck that one down.

Finally, I salute SFC Kenneth Westbrook, another Class of 55 ETT who died with four US Marine advisors in Konar on 8 September 2009.  RIP SFC Westbrook.

UPDATE:  On 15 October 2013, CPT Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for battlefield gallantry, in a ceremony at the White House.

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