WASHINGTON — President Obama took a break from dealing with the fiscal crisis on Tuesday to award former Army captain William Swenson the Medal of Honor, making him the first Army officer to receive the military's highest honor since Vietnam.
Obama suggested that Washington could learn from Swenson, as he briefly reflected during the ceremony on the ongoing government shutdown and the precipice of default if Congress doesn't raise the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.
"At 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 its easy but also when it is hard," Obama said. "Will, you are an example to everyone in this city and to our whole country of the professionalism and patriotism we should strive for if we wear a uniform or not."
Swenson became sixth living recipient of the honor from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was honored for his heroics in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley, where he was helping lead a column of American soldiers and Marines, and their Afghan counterparts, to meet a group of village elders. Swenson and his team were ambushed by some 60 well-armed Taliban fighters.
The American troops would face a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and machine gun fire. Swenson would quickly coordinate a response of fire, while calling in artillery and aviation support, but the U.S. forces would become surrounded on three sides by the enemy. An hour into the fight communication with lead elements was lost.
At one point in the chaos, Swenson coordinated helicopter support, returning fire on the enemy and treating a critically wounded comrade, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook.
Obama remarked about combat video from the helicopter that came to evacuate Westbrook, which showed Swenson emerge from a cloud of dust. The video, which the Army released last month, captures Swenson in a "simple act of compassion and loyalty" to his wounded comrade, Obama said.
"He helps carry that wounded soldier to the helicopter and helps place him inside and then in the midst the whipping wind and deafening roar he does something unexpected," Obama said. "He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head."
Swenson and the Americans would fight for at least six hours and took more casualties and were even denied artillery fire and air support, but they never relented as Swenson led the recovery of the dead and wounded, Obama said.
The recognition of Swenson for his gallantry marks only the second time in the last 50 years that two American servicemembers have received the Medal of Honor for actions in the same battle.
In 2011, Dakota Meyer, a Marine sergeant who also is now a civilian, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in that Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Afghanistan.
Swenson's medal comes with some controversy. Some, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., questioned whether the Defense Department purposely slow walked approval of the high honor. During an internal investigation of what happened at Ganjgal battle, Swenson told expressed dismay that his repeated calls for close air support were denied.
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The Army later acknowledged that close air support was improperly denied, and two Army officers who were at the combat operations center when the calls came in received reprimands.
Meyer told the Marine Corps Times before he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011 that it was "ridiculous" Swenson already hadn't received some form of valor award.
"I'll put it this way," Meyer said of Swenson. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be alive today."
In brief remarks to reporters following the ceremony, Swenson said the honor belongs not just to him, but all those who fought beside him.
"This award was earned with a team, a team of our finest," Swenson said. "This medal represents them; it represents us."
Contributing: David Jackson