Capt. William Swenson on Tuesday became the first Army officer since the Vietnam War to be awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony attended by his fellow troops and the families of the soldiers who were killed as they fought alongside him.
It was one of the toughest battles of the Afghanistan War, seven hours of continuous fighting, as Captain Swenson and his fellow troops were surrounded on three sides with bullets, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades raining down on them.
Swenson continuously placed his life in danger as he moved to rescue his fellow American soldiers and endeavored to bring the injured to safety.
He helped to carry Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who had been shot in the neck, the length of more than two football fields under fire in order to get him evacuated.
Video taken from the helmet cameras of US military rescue pilots, which has since gone viral, shows Swenson kissing Westbrook on the head before the helicopter lifts off.
That “remarkable piece of video” takes those who watch it “to the front lines that our troops face every single day,” President Obama said in the White House ceremony Tuesday afternoon.
He called the kiss on the head that Swenson gave to Westbrook “a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother-in-arms.”
He continues to call Westbrook’s widow regularly to check in on her and her three boys.
Prior to that battle, Swenson had served one tour in Iraq and was on his second tour in Afghanistan.
He grew up in Seattle, the son of college professors and surrounded not by “GI Joe” action figures, but by educational games, Mr. Obama noted.
Since he retired from the Army, Swenson has made no secret of the fact that he has struggled with combat stress. He is currently unemployed, though he has applied to go back to the military on active duty status, and says he often likes to escape to the mountains where he can find solitude.
He told one reporter he specializes in Pyrrhic victories – wins that comes at such a devastating cost that they are indistinguishable from defeat.
In these observations, he echoes the remarks of his fellow Medal of Honor recipient, Army Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, who received the medal in August for valor in a 2009 battle in Afghanistan.
He, too, fought in a day-long battle and struggled to save a fellow soldier, Spc. Stephen Mace, who was mortally wounded and pinned down in what is known among soldiers as a “kill zone” before Sergeant Carter ran to him under fire.
“I lost some of my hearing in that fight,” Carter said. “But I’ll hear the voice of Mace – and his pleas for help – for the rest of my life.”
Obama called him a model for the military, as it seeks to help troops grappling with post-traumatic stress.
“Look at this soldier,” he said. “Look at this warrior. He’s as tough as they come, and if he can find the courage and the strength not only to seek help but also to speak out about it – to take care of himself and to stay strong – then so can you.”
Now that he is a Medal of Honor recipient, Swenson, too, could become an inspiration for other veterans who are also grappling with the wounds of war, says Phillip Carter, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society research program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
In Swenson, “You see a model for how you can struggle with combat stress and emerge stronger," he says.
Carter as well as Swenson have “publicly talked about the demons they brought home, and no one is questioning their valor,” he adds. “You can clearly struggle and be tough at the same time, which is a very important message for knocking down stigmas.”
For his part, Carter has continued to speak out about the toll combat takes on the lives of soldiers long after they return home from war.
“Know that a solider suffering from post-traumatic stress is one of the most passionate, dedicated men or women you’ll ever meet,” he said. “Know that they are not damaged. They are simply burdened with living what others did not.”