In more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Medal of Honor — the highest award for combat bravery — has been awarded five times to living recipients. On Oct. 15, the Medal of Honor will be presented to another living recipient, marking the sixth time since Sept. 11, 2001, that a member of the armed forces will stand before the commander in chief to receive the nation's most revered combat valor award.
Former Army Capt. Will Swenson will be honored for his actions during the battle at Ganjgal, Afghanistan, where a group of Afghan soldiers and police, and their military trainers were ambushed. With the team facing an enemy force numbering upward of 50 insurgents, Capt. Swenson did the unthinkable. He exposed himself to enemy fire repeatedly, moved U.S. forces out of the kill zone, evacuated the wounded and recovered the bodies of four Americans killed in the ambush.
Courage and selflessness are prevailing qualities of America's military men and women, but Capt. Swenson's actions are extraordinary — so extraordinary that he was nominated for the Medal of Honor. Though no one, not even Capt. Swenson himself, could have predicted what would ensue over the next four years. A different kind of fight erupted, this time against a formidable bureaucracy that, for reasons that are still being determined, put his nomination in the cross hairs.
Interestingly, Capt. Swenson was nominated along with Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who was also in the battle at Ganjgal, though their nominations followed two distinctly separate paths. Sgt. Meyer's nomination sailed through the review and approval process, and in September 2011, he received his award. Meanwhile, the nomination package for Capt. Swenson had been "lost" by its handlers. For 19 months, his nomination package was nowhere to be found.
One theory on how or why the nomination was lost deals with the aftermath of Ganjgal. Capt. Swenson, having been denied air and artillery cover, was candid about his feelings on the rules of engagement and the leadership of officers who denied requests for support. His witness statement contained the complaints. As the leading officer on the ground, he was right to express his frustration the way he did.
Only when Capt. Swenson's heroic actions received national attention did the nomination process resume. Even then, it took an unusual amount of time to make things right. From start to finish, it will have taken more than four years for Capt. Swenson to receive the award he should have received years ago. That's far too long.
The Medal of Honor awards process has been fairly criticized for reasons that it's been politicized through the bureaucracy. Further, standards are still exceedingly high and rarely consistent. The cases of Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta and Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe are indicative of the arbitrary justifications and exceedingly high threshold that has been set.
Attempting to justify the shortage of Medal of Honor recipients of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was previously conveyed by a Department of Defense official that combat is different nowadays, because roadside bombs and other tactics have limited contact with the enemy, resulting in fewer acts of bravery. What nonsense.
Ask the Marines who fought in Fallujah, Iraq. Ask the survivors of Ganjgal, Afghanistan. Ask anyone who has experienced combat through 10 years of fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they are sure to agree: The wars fought by today's generation have not discouraged acts of courage that are in the spirit and tradition of the Medal of Honor.
Among the combat awards of the past decade especially, Capt. Swenson's Medal of Honor might be the most significant, for two reasons. First, it acknowledges the occurrence of errors on the part of the chain of command. Second, it restores some much-needed integrity to the Medal of Honor process.
Capt. Swenson's award is a humbling reminder of the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who serve in America's military. His Medal of Honor is long overdue, as are awards for several others.
Through the approval of Capt. Swenson's nomination, a major step has been taken toward addressing the breakdowns that have stalled Medal of Honor recommendations or resulted in unjustified downgrades. Let's hope the improvement continues with the recognition of other military heroes who deserve the same respect and appreciation.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, is a former Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.