Pinned down by enemy fire in the steep-flanked Ganjgal valley of eastern Afghanistan, then-Capt. Will Swenson thought his Army career launched after 9/11 might soon meet an untimely end.
Taliban fighters less than 100 feet away were so certain of their victory they called for his surrender as he tried behind a rock wall to stanch the bleeding from the face and neck of Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, a father with three children.
A Marine officer nearby fired at the insurgents. Swenson threw a grenade, then resumed first aid.
A native of Seattle, he would later receive the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military award — for his acts of valor in the 2009 battle that resulted in the deaths of five U.S. service members and 10 Afghan allies. The recognition came after a bitter chapter in his Army career when it appeared his military service was over after harshly questioning the decisions of some of his superiors to his requests for air and artillery support.
Today, like more than 800,000 Americans who served in Afghanistan, he struggles to come to terms with sacrifices made by both Afghans and U.S. troops in the nation’s longest war amid the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attacks. After a career that included two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, Swenson, now a 42-year-old lieutenant colonel, speaks with a mix of frustration and pragmatism of the Taliban’s return to power.
“They won in Afghanistan. We never clearly understood what was happening on the ground, or we chose to ignore it,” Swenson said. “It’s not a time for us to be looking back. For acrimony and recriminations. That’s going to come. Our responsibilities now are to the people left behind.”
9/11 launched his military career
Soldiering appeared to be an unlikely vocation for Swenson.
Growing up, he spurned organized athletics to ski, kayak, raft and hike. “I was a child of the Northwest, an REI action figure,” he recalled.
His mother, the late Julia Swenson, taught at Everett Community College. His father Carl Swenson, has been a professor of mathematics at Seattle University, where Will spent his undergraduate years , majoring in political science and receiving his diploma in the spring of 2001.
He wanted to get a job in the State Department.
That changed on 9/11. In his Capitol Hill apartment, he turned on his television — equipped with bunny ear antennas to watch the worst terrorism attacks in U.S. history. Hijacked planes took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, another crashed into the Pentagon, and Flight 93 ended with passengers fighting their way into the cockpit, and everyone aboard dying as it crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
For Swenson — like plenty of others in his generation — that changed everything. Stamping passports in some consulate office no longer seemed like the way to begin his career. Instead, he joined the Army and went through months of basic and officer training.
“The Army had a very compelling argument, which is: within a very short amount of time — you will actually be effecting change,” Swenson said.
His first deployment to Afghanistan came in 2003 as the U.S. began a second war, invading Iraq to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. Swenson recalls a sudden shift in the focus of the Army away from Afghanistan. Resources became more scarce and the earlier gains began to slip away. In retrospect, he thinks that with the U.S. making a priority push in Iraq, it would have been better to declare victory in Afghanistan, and move on.
That did not happen.
In 2008, the year before a major surge in U.S. troop strength, Swenson returned to Afghanistan to serve on an advisory team to the Afghan Border Patrol in the rugged terrain near Pakistan. The border patrol was drawn from the local area, and Swenson’s job was to turn them into a fighting unit that could help bring security to the region.
By then, the Taliban insurgency, bolstered by refuges in Pakistan, had gained momentum. The battle of Ganjgal unfolded by a border village that had been used as a transit point for the Taliban, and a launching point for rockets.
Ambush in the valley
Early the morning of Sept. 8, 2009, a force of 106 — mostly Afghan Border Patrol and army, but also some American Marines, a Navy corpsman as well the U.S. Army’s Westbrook and Swenson — set out for a meeting where, over tea, they intended to warn the villagers to stop supporting the insurgency,
The ambush began as an advance column that included Marines and then embedded McClatchy News reporter Jonathan Landay approached the outskirts of the community. More than 60 heavily armed fighters well positioned on the high ground rained down rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine-gun fire.
At 6:30 a.m., about an hour into the firefight, Westbrook, in an exposed position, yelled to Swenson that he was hit. Westbrook kept fighting. Eventually, he started to fade from his wounds, and yelled “I can’t keep this up,” which prompted Swenson to expose himself to the hostile fire to tend to him.
Around 7:15 a.m., Westbrook mustered what Swenson said was incredible strength and determination to move hundreds of yards, bobbing up and down to avoid getting hit again as he headed for an evacuation helicopter. Swenson said he offered support, as well as covering fire. In a brief moment captured on video, he placed a kiss on Westbrook’s forehead before leaving him.
Westbrook had been on his last combat tour of a 22-year Army career, and was headed toward retirement. Transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he died at the age of 41, on Oct. 7, his wife Charlene by his side.
The fighting lasted some six hours. Swenson repeatedly reentered the kill zone in an unarmored Ford Ranger to help retrieve the wounded and dead.
More than a half dozen times, Swenson radioed his Army superiors requesting air and artillery support to target insurgents as they moved near the village. Helicopter air support. Artillery could have resulted in civilian casualties, and Swenson was unable to get approval for hitting the coordinates where it would be most effective.
Swenson, in a recent interview, called it a clash between the tactical needs of his forces on the ground and the political concerns of those higher up the chain of command.
“ This was coming from the top down — civilian casualties are unacceptable. They are. But at the end of the day, we are warfighters. If you take away our capabilities, you have to weigh the risk that we assume.”
Shortly after the battle, grieving and angry over those lost, Swenson was less diplomatic as he was interviewed by investigators: “When I am being second-guessed by [higher-ups] or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC [tactical operations center], well, hell why I am I even out there? Let’s just sit back and play Nintendo,” according to reporting by Landay.
Long path to Medal of Honor
Swenson extended his Afghanistan tour of duty six months to try to wrap up his work with the Afghan Border Patrol. He returned home in 2010.
Swenson’s criticism of higher-ranking Army officers appeared to damage his military career. He was wary that he would be targeted for retribution by those who he had angered. And by September 2011, as Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer was awarded a Medal of Honor for actions during the battle of Ganjgal, Swenson had resigned from the Army and returned to Seattle.
Swenson said he resigned “to protect myself” as his career was being derailed and he learned that the recommendation for his own Medal of Honor had disappeared. He skied a lot all over the Northwest as he considered what he would do next.
A California Republican and veteran, Rep. Duncan Hunter, was angry about Swenson’s fate.
He wrote a series of letters to Defense Department officials which prompted an Army investigation concluding the recommendation had been misplaced in the computer system. Separate investigations led to reprimands of two Army officers for their responses to Swenson’s repeated calls for more support in the battle, all of which was doggedly reported by Landay.
Then, in October 2013, came a dramatic turn of events.
Swenson was invited to a ceremony at the White House, where President Barack Obama bestowed on him the Medal of Honor.
For Swenson, it was awkward to be suddenly transformed by the Army from an outcast to hero. But the event proved to be a time for healing as the event drew many of the participants in the battle, including aircrews he had never met, along with families of those who died during the battle.
The next day, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised Swenson for his conduct off — as well as on — the battlefield.
“He questioned — he dared to question the institution that he was faithful to and loyal to. Mistakes were made, in his case. Now, that’s courage and that’s integrity and that’s character. … The United States Army corrected the mistake. They went back and acknowledged a mistake was made and they fixed it.”
Hope for peace
Though still a civilian, Swenson donned his military uniform to receive the Medal of Honor. And by December 2013, he was back on active duty.
In the years since returning to the Army, Swenson, now a lieutenant colonel, has worked as a military attaché in Latin America and currently is an adviser at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he resides with his wife, Kelsey, and their three children.
He continued to follow the war from afar as the Trump administration loosened rules of engagements in aerial bombing campaigns. By 2019, civilian casualties from U.S. and allied aerial attacks totaled more than 700 deaths, more than any other year since the war began, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project.
In recent weeks, Swenson has closely followed the implosion of the Afghan forces, and bristles at the notion that Afghans, who fought beside him in Ganjgal, won’t sacrifice for their nation.
The Afghan forces still were dependent on U.S. support. And once that ended, he says the Afghan forces made “a strategic decision” not to fight.
He hopes that Afghanistan can finally find peace after decades of war. And he hopes Americans will stay engaged, helping not only those who still seek to leave — but also those who remain.
“Maybe we didn’t get it right this time around. That doesn’t mean we walk away, “ Swenson said. “We don’t need boots on the ground but there is going to be a need to ensure there is not a humanitarian disaster.”