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Four Years Later, Army Hero Honored

This week, retired Army Capt. William Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during an intense firefight in Afghanistan in 2009.

His team was conducting meetings with village elders in the village of Ganjar, in Kunar Province, when they were ambushed.

Swenson was honored for risking his life several times to rescue fellow troops and recover bodies during the seven-hour battle.

Members of the MedEvac unit that came to rescue his team were wearing helmet cameras that captured Swenson’s actions. They also captured the moment he loaded his injured comrade, Sgt. First Class Kenneth Westbrook, into the helicopter and kissed him on the forehead.

“When you’re on the battlefield you don’t always remember the moments where your humanity comes through; you remember the moments you made the decision to move an element or call for fire on a specific position” Swenson told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “It showed a moment where I truly got to tell my former soldier, Sgt. First Class Westbrook, that he had done his job, and he was going home.”

Westbrook survived for a month, before he died. Westbrook’s wife attended Swenson’s medal ceremony.

“She had a month to spend with Ken, who for a while was on the mend,” Swenson said. “He was asking for a Heineken from time to time. I believe he was flirting with the nurses, so he was in high spirits. He had the opportunity to be with his family.”

Swenson was nominated for the Medal of Honor soon after the battle, but there was a delay in his receiving the medal.

At the ceremony, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel apologized for the delay.

But those close to Swenson feel the Medal was delayed because he had criticized superiors for failing to provide air support for for his troops during the battle.

“One can speculate all they like,” Swenson said. “The honor for me was being nominated for that award.”


  • William Swenson, retired Army Captain and Medal of Honor recepient.

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Army Capt. William Swenson at NPR studios in Washington, DC. (Ben Watson/NPR)
Army Capt. William Swenson at NPR studios in Washington, DC. (Ben Watson/NPR)