President Barack Obama awards former Army Capt. William D.
Swenson the Medal of Honor on October 15, 2013. Swenson received the Nation's
highest honor for his courageous actions while serving as an 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. He is the sixth living recipient and the first officer to be awarded the
Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Army News Service photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
Video courtesy of White House
Text of President Barack Obama's Remarks and Associated
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. It's shaky and grainy, but it takes us to the frontlines
that our troops face every day. And in that video, as the helicopter
touches down by a remote village, you see, out of a cloud of dust, an
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. Then, amidst the whipping wind and deafening roar of
the 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 heat of 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 part 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 of 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 Julie and Carl, and Will's girlfriend Kelsey. I
had a chance to visit with them. Both Carl and Julie are former college
professors, so instead of a house full of GI Joes, Will grew up in
Seattle, surrounded by educational games. 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," so I'm going to be very
I just had a chance to spend some time with them.
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.
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 when it's hard;
especially when it's hard. Will, you're an example -- to everyone in
this city, to our whole country -- of the professionalism and patriotism
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 lead to Will being 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, and a Navy corpsman 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, and 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. Then Will learns that his
non-commissioned 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 wound 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. Over the radio, they're
demanding the Americans surrender. Will stops treating Kenneth long
enough to respond -- by lobbing a grenade.
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. 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 -- 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 [were] not leaving any Soldiers
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
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 good 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 far away 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. 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.
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 I know
something about each of you through the actions of your loved ones that
day. They were part of a team, and you are now 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.
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 her 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 worst. He succumbed to
complications from his treatment. I think it's safe to say that Charlene
will always be grateful for the final days she was able to spend with
her husband. 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 you've fought alongside, and for
everything you've done for us. God bless all of our men and women in
uniform. God bless the United States of America.
With that, I'd
like my military to read the citation please.
PRESENTATION: Medal of Honor placed around Swenson's neck by President
BENEDITION performed by the
U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains (Maj. Gen.) Donald Rutherford.
FINAL remarks by President Barack Obama:
Let me say once again, not only to Will, but to 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.
Will, you are a
remarkable role model for all of us, and we're very grateful for your
We are going to have a reception after this. I hear the
food is pretty good around here. I hope all of you have a chance to
stay, and for those of you who have a chance to thank Will personally,
this is very welcome. I'm going to be exiting with Will and Michelle,
first. We'll take a couple of pictures. Enjoy yourselves this afternoon.