During a ceremony on Oct. 16, at the White House, President Barack Obama hung the Medal of Honor around Capt. William Swenson’s neck to rounds of applause and the flash of cameras.
Looking on from the crowd in attendance were members of the California National Guard, whom Swenson had invited as personal guests. They had been there on the day that Swenson’s actions during the Battle of Ganjgal earned him America’s highest military honor.
On Sept. 8, 2009, Swenson, an active-duty soldier, was part of an embedded training team of 13 Americans on patrol with approximately 80 Afghan army and police, near the town of Ganjgal in northeast Afghanistan.
As they approached Ganjgal, the group was ambushed by 100 to 150 Taliban fighters. The Americans and their Afghan allies were surrounded and taking heavy fire, and members of the group sustained severe injuries. A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the California National Guard’s Company C, 1-168th General Support Aviation Battalion, was then called to medevac the wounded out of the valley.
"We knew what we were getting into because we had been listening to the radio for the past 20 minutes," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Duerst of Charlie Company.
Duerst was the crew chief on the helicopter. Capt. Marco Acevedo and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Penrod were the pilots. Sgt. Marc Dragony was the medic, and Capt. Brendan McCriskin was the flight surgeon. Duerst, Acevedo and Dragony were California National Guardsmen. Penrod was a Nevada National Guardsman, and McCriskin was active duty Army.
When their helicopter reached the valley, small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars were raining down on the American position. Swenson was engaged in a firefight and was directing OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters toward enemy positions.
"The first pass we didn’t see him and we started taking fire," Duerst said. "We flew right into the middle of the valley. We could see the muzzle flashes on the ground. There were too many and we knew we had to leave."
The second time around, Swenson was easy to spot.
"He was lying on the ground with [an] orange panel marker on him," Duerst said.
The Black Hawk landed and Swenson ran to it while assisting Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who had been shot and was in critical condition. Swenson and the crew loaded Westbrook onto the helicopter. The crew then flew him to a forward surgical team in Asadabad, Afghanistan.
The 1-168th crew returned to the battlefield three more times and medevaced five additional wounded soldiers to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. When the battle was over, four Americans and eight Afghan allies were dead.
Westbrook died of complications related to his wounds a month later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Three years later, Staff Sgt. Emmett Spraktes of Charlie Company learned that Duerst and Penrod had recorded video that day using cameras mounted on their helmets.
Spraktes was not a member of that crew Sept. 8, but he had served in Afghanistan with Company C, and had worked with the crew members who participated in the Battle of Ganjgal. Spraktes was writing a book about California Guard flight medics titled "Selfish Prayer," and he asked to view the video as part of his research.
As he watched the footage, Spraktes saw Swenson and Westbrook run toward the helicopter, then Swenson helped Westbrook aboard and leaned over and gave the badly wounded soldier a kiss on the forehead.
"That kiss on the forehead captured the compassion that he had and that we all have for one another," Spraktes said.
Spraktes contacted Swenson and offered to send him the video if he would present it to Westbrook’s wife as a gift honoring her late husband. Swenson was happy to oblige.
Earlier this year, Swenson traveled to Sacramento to meet Spraktes and the Black Hawk crew who medevaced Westbrook out of the valley. They met for dinner and beers at Spraktes’ house and discussed the battle.
"[Swenson] told them how much he appreciated them being able to take Westbrook out of there," Spraktes said.
Since then, Spraktes, Swenson and the Black Hawk crew have stayed in touch.
"Captain Swenson is a quiet and very humble man," Spraktes said. "He is very ethical and honorable, and very loyal to people."
Swenson invited Spraktes and the Black Hawk crew to the White House for the Oct. 16 ceremony, and Duerst, Spraktes and Acevedo were able to attend.
"Just to even be asked, I was very humbled and honored," Spraktes said.
"We saw what he did and how he kept going back in, and tried to pull more people out without concern for himself," Duerst said. "I think the award is truly well-deserved."