President Obama awards Captain William Swenson, U.S. Army, the Medal of Honor

President Obama awards Captain William Swenson, U.S. Army, the Medal of Honor


Chaplain Maj. Gen. Rutherford:
Let us pray together. Gentle God, who has been
our helper in times past, continue to be our
help in these days. More than two centuries
you have blessed our nation, the dedicated and selfless
soldiers in uniform who stand ready to deploy and
defend our nation’s freedoms. As we honor Captain Will Swenson for his actions during
the battle of Ganjgal. We honor the sacred trust that he and his team
embodied that day. We thank you for the
last full measure of devotion given that day. The Medal of Honor is draped
around Captain Swenson. May the healing grace of hope
and peace rest upon each of us. Let Captain Swenson’s example
rekindle in us a spirit of sacrifice
and a steadfastness of purpose. Let this occasion renew our
commitment to uphold the right to oppose the wrong
and continue the work that was begun so long ago. This we ask and pray
in your holy name. Amen. The President:
Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat. On behalf of
Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House. Last month,
the United States Army released a remarkable
piece of video. It’s from the
combat helmet cameras of a Medevac helicopter
crew in Afghanistan. And it’s shaky and it’s grainy, but it takes us to the frontlines
that our troops face every single day, and it’s useful to remember
that there is still a whole lot of our troops
in Afghanistan in harm’s way. In that video, as the helicopter touches down
by a remote village, you see, out of a cloud
of dust, an American soldier. He’s without his helmet,
standing in the open, exposing himself to enemy fire, standing watch over
a severely wounded soldier. He helps carry that wounded
soldier to the helicopter and places 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. And as the door closes and
the helicopter takes off, he turns and goes back the way
he came, back into the battle. In our nation’s history,
we have presented our highest military decoration,
the Medal of Honor, nearly 3,500 times for actions above and
beyond the call of duty. But this may be the first
time that we can actually bear witness to a small fraction
of those actions for ourselves. And today we honor
the American in that video — the soldier who went back in —
Captain William Swenson. Not far away that day was
then-Corporal Dakota Meyer, to whom we presented the
Medal of Honor two years ago. Today is only the second time in nearly half a century
that the Medal of Honor has been awarded to two survivors
of the same battle. Dakota is not here today,
but I want to welcome some of the soldiers
and Marines who fought alongside both these men — and the families of those
who gave their lives that day. I want to welcome all of
our distinguished guests, including members of
the Medal of Honor Society, whose ranks today
grow by one more. Most of all, I want to welcome
Will’s wonderful parents, Julia and Carl —
and Will’s girlfriend, Kelsey. Had a chance to visit with them. Both Carl and Julia are
former college professors, so instead of a house
full of GI Joes, Will grew up in Seattle
surrounded by educational games. (laughter) I’m told that even
when Will was little, his mom was always
a stickler for grammar — always making sure he said
“to whom” instead of “to who.” (laughter) So I’m going to be
very careful today. (laughter) I just had a chance to
spend some time with them, and I have to say Will
is a pretty low-key guy. His idea of a good time isn’t
a big ceremony like this one. He’d rather be somewhere up
in the mountains, or on a trail, surrounded by cedar
trees instead of cameras. But I think our nation
needs this ceremony today. Moments like this,
Americans like Will, remind us what our country
can be at its best — a nation of citizens who
look out for one another; who meet our obligations
to one another, not just when it’s easy,
but also when it’s hard. Maybe especially when it’s hard. Will, you’re an example
to everyone in this city, and to our whole country of the
professionalism and patriotism that we should strive for — whether we wear
the uniform or not — not just on particular
occasions, but all the time. For those who aren’t familiar
with the story of the battle that led Will to be here today,
I want to take you back to that September morning
four years ago. It’s around sunrise. A column of Afghan soldiers
and their American advisors are winding their way up
a narrow trail towards a village to meet with elders — but just as the
first soldier reaches the outskirts of the village,
all hell breaks loose. Almost instantly,
four Americans — three Marines, one Navy — at the front of the
column are surrounded. Will and the soldiers
in the center of the column are pinned down. Rocket-propelled grenade,
mortar, machine gun fire, all of this is pouring
in from three sides. As he returns fire,
Will calls for air support. But his initial
requests are denied — Will and his team are
too close to the village. And then Will learns that
his noncommissioned officer, Sergeant First Class
Kenneth Westbrook, has been shot in the neck. So Will breaks across
50 meters of open space, bullets biting all around;
lying on his back, he presses a bandage
to Kenneth’s wounds with one hand and calls for
a Medevac with the other, trying to keep his buddy calm. By this time, the enemy
has gotten even closer — just 20 or 30 meters away,
and over the radio, they’re demanding the
Americans to surrender. So Will stops treating Kenneth
long enough to respond by lobbing a grenade. And finally, after more than
an hour and a half of fighting, air support arrives. Will directs them
to nearby targets. Then it’s time to move, so exposing himself
again to enemy fire, Will helps carry
Kenneth the length of more than two
football fields, down steep terraces,
to that helicopter. And then, in the moment
captured by those cameras, Will leans in to say goodbye. But more Americans and more
Afghans are still out there. So Will does
something incredible. He jumps behind the wheel of an unarmored Ford Ranger
pickup truck. A Marine gets in
the passenger seat. And they drive that truck — this is a vehicle designed
for the highway — straight into the battle. Twice, they pick up
injured Afghan soldiers — bullets whizzing past them,
slamming into the pickup truck. Twice they bring them back. When the truck gives
out, they grab a Humvee. The Marine by Will’s side has
no idea how they survived. But, he says, “By that time
it didn’t matter. We weren’t going to leave
any soldiers behind.” Finally, a helicopter spots
those four missing Americans — hours after they were trapped
in the opening ambush. So Will gets in another Humvee, with a crew that
includes Dakota Meyer. And together, they drive. Past enemy fighters, up through
the valley, exposed once more. And when they reach the village,
Will jumps out — drawing even more fire,
dodging even more bullets. But they reach those Americans,
lying where they fell. Will and the others carry
them out, one by one. They bring their
fallen brothers home. Scripture tells us, “The greatest among you
shall be your servant.” Captain Will
Swenson was a leader on that September morning. But like all great leaders,
he was also a servant — to the men he commanded, to the more than a dozen
Afghans and Americans whose lives he saved, to the families of those who
gave their last full measure of devotion
on that faraway field. 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.” That’s why, after I called Will
to tell him he’d be receiving this Medal, one of the first
things he did was to invite to this ceremony those
who fought alongside him. And I’d like all of those who
served with such valor alongside Will, both Army and Marines,
who fought for each other, please stand and be recognized. (applause) Thank you. Will also reached out to the
families of the four Americans who gave their lives that day. To them he wrote —
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 a
part of that team.” So I would ask
the members of this team — the families of First Lieutenant
Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Johnson,
Gunnery Sergeant Aaron Kenefick, and Hospitalman Third
Class James Layton, as well as the family
of Kenneth Westbrook — to please stand. (applause) Kenneth was the
soldier Will delivered to the safety
of that helicopter. After being airlifted out,
he made it to Walter Reed. He started rehab and spent
time with his wife, Charlene, who joins us here today. She still remembers the
first time she spoke to Will, when he called from Afghanistan
to check in on Kenneth. Soon after that
phone call, however, Kenneth took
a turn for the worse. He succumbed to complications
from his treatment. But I think it’s
fair to say that Charlene will always be grateful
for the final days she was able to
spend with her husband. And even now, a month rarely
goes by when Will doesn’t call or text, checking in with Charlene
and her three boys. “That’s the kind of man he is,”
Charlene says about Will. “You don’t have to
ask Will for help. He just knows when
to be there for you.” So Will Swenson was
there for his brothers. He was there for their families. As a nation, we thank God
that patriots like him are there for us all. So, Will, God bless you,
and all the men that you fought alongside and everything
that you’ve done for us. God bless all our men
and women in uniform. And God bless the
United States of America. With that,
I’d like my Military Aide to read the citation, please. Military Aide:
The President of the
United States of America, authorized by Act of
Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of
Congress the Medal of Honor to Captain William D. Swenson,
United States Army, For conspicuous
gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above
and beyond the call of duty: Captain William D. Swenson
distinguished himself by acts of gallantry
and intrepidity at the risk of his life above
and beyond the call of duty while serving
as embedded advisor to the Afghan National Border
Police, Task Force Phoenix, Combined Security Transition
Command-Afghanistan in support of 1st Battalion,
32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team,
10th Mountain Division, during combat operations
against an armed enemy in Kunar Province, Afghanistan
on September 8, 2009. On that morning, more
than 60 well-armed, well-positioned enemy fighters
ambushed Captain Swenson’s combat team as it moved on foot
into the village of Ganjgal for a meeting with
village elders. As the enemy unleashed a barrage
of rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and machine gun fire,
Captain Swenson immediately returned fire and coordinated
and directed the response of his Afghan Border Police, while simultaneously
calling in suppressive artillery fire and aviation support. After the enemy effectively
flanked Coalition Forces, Captain Swenson repeatedly
called for smoke to cover the withdrawal
of the forward elements. Surrounded on three
sides by enemy forces inflicting effective
and accurate fire, Captain Swenson
coordinated air assets, indirect fire support
and medical evacuation helicopter support to allow for
the evacuation of the wounded. Captain Swenson ignored enemy
radio transmissions demanding surrender and maneuvered
uncovered to render medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier. Captain Swenson stopped
administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at
approaching enemy forces, before assisting with moving
the soldier for air evacuation. With complete disregard
for his own safety, Captain Swenson unhesitatingly
led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone,
exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions,
to recover the wounded and search for
four missing comrades. After using aviation support
to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades,
it became clear that ground recovery
of the fallen was required due to heavy enemy fire
on helicopter landing zones. Captain Swenson’s
team returned to the kill zone another time in a Humvee. Captain Swenson voluntarily
exited the vehicle, exposing himself to enemy fire,
to locate and recover three fallen Marines and one
fallen Navy corpsman. His exceptional leadership
and stout resistance against the enemy during six hours of
continuous fighting rallied his teammates and effectively
disrupted the enemy’s assault. Captain William D. Swenson’s
extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond
the call of duty are in keeping
with the highest traditions of military service and reflect
great credit upon himself, Task Force Phoenix,
1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment,
3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division and
the United States Army. (applause) Chaplain Maj. Gen. Rutherford:
Eternal God,
we ask your blessing to rest upon us this day
as we go forth in peace, inspired by the actions of
courageous and good people; that we follow the example set
by Captain Swenson and his team, people of valor,
ready when the cause for which we have given
our vow confronts us. Give us strength to live
through troubled times. Fill us with grace
equal to every need, and grant us the wisdom
and the will to do justice, to love mercy
and to walk humbly. This we ask and pray
in your holy name. Amen. The President:
Well, let me say once again, not only to Will, but all
our men and women in uniform who have served us with such incredible
courage and professionalism, that America is
grateful for you. To the families of those we’ve
lost, we will never forget. And, Will, you are a remarkable
role model for all of us, and we’re very grateful
for your service. We are going to have
a reception after this. I hear the food is
pretty good around here. (laughter) And so I hope all of you
have a chance to stay — and those of you
who have a chance to say thank you to Will,
personally, obviously that’s very welcome. I’m going to be exiting with
Will and Michelle first. We’ll take a couple of pictures. But enjoy yourselves
this afternoon. God bless America. (applause)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *