- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The top U.S. commander for the Persian Gulf has ordered a review of how recommendations for battlefield awards are tracked by the Afghanistan command, which lost the paperwork for a Medal of Honor nominee and for other heroes.

Former Army Capt. William Swenson, who distinguished himself in a 2009 firefight, received the nation’s highest military honor from President Obama during a White House ceremony Oct. 15, but the revelation that the awards office for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan misplaced his packet of endorsements opened the command to charges of incompetence.

An inspector general’s investigation found that Capt. Swenson’s experience was not unique: The awards section for the nation’s longest war, in which nearly 2,300 American troops have died, often has lost paperwork.

Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, who heads U.S. Central Command, said he is taking steps to prevent any more lapses.

“I have directed USFOR-A to conduct a detailed review of their complete awards tracking process and report back to me with findings and recommendations,” Gen. Austin said in a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, Marine war veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee. “I can assure you that we will make any changes needed to improve this process.

“Members of the U.S. Armed Forces should receive appropriate, tangible and timely recognition for acts of valor and heroism, meritorious service, or specific achievement through personal performance, Defense Department service or unit awards,” the general said.

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In September 2009, Capt. Swenson was part of an Afghan-American patrol nearing Ganjgal village to meet with its elders. The patrol received a rude welcome: Taliban fighters launched an ambush, pinning down and separating the column of troops.

During the firefight, Capt. Swenson learned that Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook had been shot in the neck. He raced more than 50 yards amid intense enemy fire to tend to the wound while calling in a medevac helicopter. Hearing Taliban demands for a surrender, Capt. Swenson responded by throwing a grenade.

After more than 90 minutes of fighting, close air support arrived to strike the Taliban. Capt. Swenson carried Sgt. Westbrook more than 200 yards to an awaiting helicopter.

Sgt. Westbrook was hospitalized but died a month later as a result of his wounds.

Capt. Swenson then re-entered the battlefield. He boarded a Ford Ranger pickup with a Marine and then a Humvee to try to rescue pinned-down Afghans and Americans.

“When they reach the village, Will jumps out, drawing even more fire, dodging even more bullets,” Mr. Obama said at the White House ceremony. “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.”

Capt. Swenson’s superiors quickly began the paperwork to recommend him for the Medal of Honor, as did commanders for Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who also distinguished himself in the battle of Ganjgal.

Cpl. Meyer’s package went outside the USFOR-A awards branch to the Marine bureaucracy. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011, becoming the first living Marine to receive the award since the Vietnam War.

When no awards were approved for Capt. Swenson, he, Cpl. Meyer and others made inquiries.

That was when the Afghanistan command’s awards office discovered it had lost Capt. Swenson’s file. The information had not been forwarded to U.S. Central Command for an endorsement and then to the Army Human Resources Command for final processing.

The Afghanistan command scurried to rectify the error by using Cpl. Meyer’s record to re-create the Swenson chain-of-command endorsements. Capt. Swenson became the fifth living soldier to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam.

The Defense Department inspector general’s Directorate for Investigations of Senior Officials found no wrongdoing by senior officers but discovered that the Swenson case was not isolated.

“The USFOR-A awards section frequently lost awards, had unreliable processes and employed inadequate tracking systems,” the inspector general said in a Nov. 7 letter to Mr. Hunter.

The stinging indictment has congressional aides wondering who else deserves a medal for courage in the Afghanistan War but has not received one because of sloppy paperwork.

“The IG revealed systemic failures with the awards process in Afghanistan that resulted in lost awards that can’t even be quantified,” said Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s deputy chief of staff. “That’s a real disservice to the men and women of America’s military in Afghanistan, especially when the problems have been evident for years but allowed to persist.”

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