Afghan ambush heroics go unrecognized

By Dan Lamothe - Marine Corps Times
Posted : Tuesday Sep 13, 2011 5:45:09 EDT


In a rocky mountainside trench, a Marine and a soldier worked in tandem under an avalanche of enemy fire to retrieve the bodies of a four-man training team killed in eastern Afghanistan.

Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer and Army Capt. William Swenson already had braved enemy fire repeatedly during the Sept. 8, 2009, ambush in Ganjgal, an insurgent-held village in Kunar province’s Sarkani district. On a last, urgent dash into the village, Meyer charged through enemy fire alone and on foot to find the missing service members, and Swenson joined him in the chaos to load their bloody bodies and gear onto a Humvee and take them home.

On Thursday, Meyer is expected to receive the Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony. He will become the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the nation’s highest combat award, and at least the ninth member of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8 to receive at least a Bronze Star with ‘V’ device for heroism in Ganjgal. Two other Marines — Capt. Ademola Fabayo and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez — each received a Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.

Swenson has received nothing. The lack of recognition raises questions whether Swenson’s angry criticism of Army officers, who repeatedly refused to send fire support that day, is the reason he has not been decorated.

It is “ridiculous” that Swenson hasn’t yet been recognized for his heroism, Meyer said. Swenson also repeatedly braved fire in the battle, working with the Marines to engage enemy fighters and evacuate U.S. and Afghan casualties from a kill zone, the Medal of Honor nominee said.

“I’ll put it this way,” Meyer said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Swenson, who left the Army in February, could not be reached for comment. During an investigation into what went wrong in Ganjgal, he blasted officers who failed to send the fire support he repeatedly requested on the battlefield, according to interview transcripts.

An Army source with knowledge of the awards process said Swenson is “up for some kind of valor award,” but he did not say whether it could be a Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross. By policy, the military does not discuss pending military awards, said Bill Costello, a spokesman with Army Human Resources Command, out of Fort Knox, Ky.

Meyer, now a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve, worked with Swenson and other service members to save pinned-down forces after a group of 13 U.S. military trainers, 60 Afghan soldiers and 20 Afghan border police were caught in a devastating U-shaped ambush in the Ganjgal Valley, near the Pakistan border.

Coalition forces engaged in a six-hour firefight in which fire support was repeatedly denied by Army officers at nearby Forward Operating Base Joyce. The officers — with Task Force Chosin, a unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y. — were later cited following a military investigation for “negligent” leadership leading “directly to the loss of life” on the battlefield.

What Swenson did

Swenson — then a member of 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kan. — was deployed to oversee the training of Afghan border police in Sarkani. A Ranger School graduate with previous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, he had participated in the planning of the mission, and was assured fire support would be available if things turned ugly.

U.S. forces left Joyce early that morning to meet tribal leaders in Ganjgal. As the lead element of the unit approached the mountainside village, the troops could see all of the lights in it flicker off. At least 50 insurgent fighters opened fire with small arms, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades shortly after dawn, Meyer said.

The four-man team of Marine trainers in the front of the element was quickly pinned down in the village with Afghan soldiers. First Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin “Wayne” Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton successfully fought to free up some of the Afghan forces, but could not break loose themselves.

“We’re surrounded!” Gunny Johnson yelled into his radio, according to witness statements from survivors. “They’re moving in on us!”

The team pleaded for fire support, a military investigation later found, but was denied because officers at Joyce’s tactical operations center underestimated how bad the ambush was and were concerned about killing civilians or U.S. service members with artillery rounds. After the Marine team stopped responding to their radio, other U.S. forces reported them missing and began a frantic search to find them, uncertain whether they had been killed.

Swenson and other U.S. forces were farther from the village, but still faced a torrent of enemy fire. He began requesting fire support shortly after the shooting started, the investigation found, but after a few early artillery shells arrived, he and other troops on the ground were denied additional rounds.

Pinned down on a hillside with several wounded U.S. forces, Swenson and Fabayo defended the group from advancing Taliban fighters, who dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms and helmets, according to military documents outlining the battle. Swenson killed at least two of them with a grenade at close range, while Fabayo engaged them with his M4 carbine.

Fabayo, then a first lieutenant, and Swenson also worked together to evacuate more casualties under fire in an unarmored Ford Ranger pickup truck used by Afghan forces. They cared for three U.S. service members who were wounded in the battle, including Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, Swenson’s top noncommissioned officer. Westbrook sustained a gunshot wound to the face and neck, and died the following month at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The Army awarded him a Bronze Star, without V, posthumously.

On the last push into the village, Swenson sat in the front passenger seat of a Humvee. Rodriguez-Chavez drove, Fabayo manned a 7.62mm M240 machine gun turret and Meyer sat in the back with Fazel, an Afghan interpreter. They were unaware at the time that the Marine team already was dead.

Meyer found them shot to death and stripped of their radios and weapons in a hillside trench that had been marked with a smoke canister tossed from a helicopter. The gunfire was too fierce for the Air Force’s elite pararescue jumpers to help, but Meyer and Swenson faced it to load the bodies.

Why the delay?

Two years later, family members of those killed at Ganjgal and survivors wonder why Swenson has never been decorated for his actions that day — particularly because Swenson was irate about repeatedly being denied fire support during the battle. Even Meyer’s Medal of Honor has been approved, they point out.

“He has received nothing at all,” Westbrook’s widow, Charlene, said of Swenson. “I don’t understand how the Army isn’t awarding him something that he clearly, clearly deserves. For it to drag on this long is totally, totally sad. Sad!”

Interviewed for the investigation, Swenson unloaded on the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers who didn’t send help and the second-guessing he experienced while requesting fire support, according to military documents. His name is redacted, but Marine Corps Times determined which statements he made based on the actions and roles described in interview transcripts.

“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?” Swenson told investigators. “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.”

Swenson added that he had been second-guessed on previous occasions, and was frustrated by a complicated process to clear fires, even under duress.

“I always get these crazy messages saying that, ‘Hey, brigade is saying that you can’t see the target,’ ” Swenson told investigators. “Brigade, you’re in Jalalabad. F--- you, you know? I am staring at the target. ... I just get the craziest things on the radio sometimes. Just people second guessing. If I am willing to put my initials on it, I understand the importance of making sure the rounds hit where they are supposed to hit. I understand the consequences of civilian casualties.”

Swenson left active-duty service in February, Costello said. Charlene Westbrook said she remains in contact with her husband’s former commander. He lives a private life in Washington state, and is still disenchanted with the Army, she said.

“He, in my opinion, is real humble. He has not said anything one way or the other about being pissed or mad about it.” But he is deserving of recognition, she added. “He’s just an awesome guy.”