The Labyrinth

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William Swenson. It’s probably not a name many recognize, something that could change in the next few months.

Former Army Captain William Swenson in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, as the military prepped for Sergeant Dakota Meyer’s Medal of Honor ceremony, the Military Times published an article about the unrecognized valor of former Army Captain Swenson, who fought at the Battle of Ganjgal alongside Meyer. For whatever reason, Swenson’s heroics have gone unrecognized up to this point, and it took Marine General John Allen to take a personal interest in Swenson’s story to compile and submit the Medal of Honor recommendation. I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader that was left wondering why the Army hadn’t taken care of one of their own; as a former Army cavalry officer I’m a bit embarrassed by it, myself.

There are a lot of layers to this onion. Swenson, Meyer, and the others in their unit expressly disobeyed orders to stay put, choosing instead to join the battle and help evacuate pinned and wounded American and Afghan combatants. While President Obama acknowledged this during the ceremony, and the media ate it up, the discussions within the Pentagon about this uncomfortable reality were most assuredly awkward and labored.

Moreover, Swenson didn’t hold back about his superiors’ decision to not support their request for artillery or air support, for fear of civilian casualties. In the interview that followed the battle, Swenson told investigators “When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place? Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander. I want that f—er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f—er.”

Frankly, most company-level leaders that have served on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan will immediately identify with Swenson’s anger and frustration. (Not to mention possibly envy his wrath and resoluteness.) These are small wars that require small unit command and control. Decentralization and delegation of authority, however, have not been a trademark of the American military for a very long time.

A number of civilian friends that I’ve shared the above article with were quite confused by the lines “the record of the battle was reopened last month, and ‘given the four-star general’s personal interest, sworn statements attesting to Capt. Swenson’s valor were quickly found’ …  It was not clear what caused the delay, or where the recommendation was in the approval process.” One called me up immediately, asking, “Why play games with something like this? What the hell is there to lose? He either did something valorous or he didn’t, and Swenson clearly did. The military can’t just lose and find paperwork at will, can they?”

Well … in my experience, I’d say that yes, yes it can just lose and find paperwork at will. Or more accurately, the people within it can, especially when awards are involved. It’s no great guild secret that the military’s awards system is as right as a football bat. If an individual rubs one person in their chain-of-command the wrong way, awards packets can and do disappear into the labyrinth of camo bureaucracy. I saw soldiers that never left FOBs awarded Bronze Stars (ostensibly a combat medal), while men that spent fifteen months outside the wire went home with a “Certificate of Achievement.” (I’m not making up that title, I promise). That’s not to say that bravery, valor and meritorious achievement always go unrecognized in the military – Sergeant Meyer is living proof of that – but to explain to the uninitiated that what’s on display isn’t always reflective of what has occurred.

Read Swenson’s words again. You think it’s possible he may have rubbed a few of his superiors the wrong way? Some of the comments below the article in question and this other one are allegedly posted by some of Swenson’s peers and soldiers, all of who attest to his professionalism, leadership excellence and forthrightness. Though the Army “reprimanded” two officers for their inactions during the Battle of Ganjgal, the commenters smartly point out that such a term could mean anything from a scolding to a localized counseling statement that won’t stick with the reprimanded as they continue their professional arms’ careers.

As for Swenson, he’s since left the Army, and according to Charlene Westbrook, the widow of the senior NCO he lost at Ganjgal, he is “disenchanted” with the Army. Unfortunately, that’s a familiar refrain in the GWOT-era with relation to talented junior leaders, officer and enlisted alike. Despite all of the press surrounding Sergeant Meyer’s Medal of Honor ceremony, not to mention the Military Times article that focused specifically on his actions, Swenson has remained out of the public eye and no one seems able to track him down for comment. I get the feeling, both from his chosen monastic lifestyle and what his peers and soldiers have posted about him on the Internet, that he truly doesn’t give a damn what medal he’s awarded, if any. Which makes the travesty that his valor hasn’t yet been recognized all the more palpable.

What’s next? My guess is that in a few months, after the publicity generated from Meyer’s Medal of Honor recedes, Swenson’s Medal of Honor recommendation will be quietly downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross or a Silver Star. No ceremony, no publicity tour, little press attention. It would still be something, not because of the medals themselves, but because of what they represent. Here’s hoping I’m wrong about that downgrade though, and that “the right thing to do,” as General Allen said, is actually done.