WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel apologized Wednesday to Medal of Honor recipient William Swenson for having to wait so long for the Army to recognize his heroism.
Speaking during a Pentagon ceremony inducting Swenson into the Hall of Heroes, Hagel said that while mistakes were made, the Army, which initially lost the paperwork for the medal, corrected the wrong.
"We're sorry that you and your family had to endure through that, but you did," Hagel told Swenson and the crowd gathered for the ceremony. "And you handled it right. And I think that deserves a tremendous amount of attention and credit."
President Barack Obama presented Swenson with the nation's highest military honor at the White House on Tuesday, citing the Army captain's bravery for repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire in order to recover fallen comrades and help save others during a battle against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan in September 2009.
Five Americans, 10 Afghan troops and an interpreter were killed in the battle.
Swenson was first nominated for the award in 2009 but the paperwork was lost. It was resubmitted in 2011. Army Secretary John McHugh said Wednesday that he has issued a new directive that requires stricter oversight in the Medal of Honor nomination process, including status updates every 30 days, in order to ensure none are ever lost again.
During the Pentagon ceremony, Hagel also said Swenson proved his valor on the battlefield and then again by having the courage to question the Army.
After the attack, Swenson complained to military leaders that many of his calls for help were rejected by superior officers. The Army conducted an investigation, and two Army officers were reprimanded for being "inadequate and ineffective" and for "contributing directly to the loss of life."
"Even after the battle, Will was not afraid to point out deficiencies in the operation that caused difficulties in obtaining the appropriate and timely support necessary," Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, said Wednesday. "He recognized the importance of assessing performance and had the character to stick to his convictions."
Swenson was a trainer and adviser embedded with the Afghan Border Police Mentor Team in support of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division when dozens of Taliban insurgents ambushed him and his team that September morning as they headed on foot to meet with village elders in rural Ganjgal in Kunar Province in northeastern Afghanistan.
Under a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and mortar and machine-gun fire, Swenson returned fire before risking his life to help evacuate a wounded comrade, and then later to recover injured Afghan soldiers and fallen Americans.
Swenson has asked that he be allowed to return to active duty, a rare move for an officer holding the Medal of Honor. The Army is reviewing the request, and U.S. officials have said it's likely he will be able to rejoin, pending a physical and other routine checks.