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Medal of Honor recipient risked his life for fellow soldiers

By Deanie Wimmer | Posted - Oct 16th, 2013 @ 8:39am


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SALT LAKE CITY — President Obama presented the Medal of Honor - the United States' highest military honor - to former U.S. Army Captain William Swenson.

Swenson was honored for his actions in the 2009 Battle of Ganjgal Valley in Afghanistan, a battle that claimed the lives of five Americans. Swenson risked his life to recover the bodies of his fellow soldiers, and his rescue efforts were caught on camera.

It was early September morning in 2009 when the column of more than 100 U.S. and Afghan troops started up the valley's narrow path. Enemy fire opened up from three sides.

"We were outnumbered. We are outgunned and we have taken casualties," said Swenson.

Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook was shot in the throat and laying out in the open.

"He called out to me and said, 'I'm hit.' He wasn't panicked. There was no indication of pain. I said, 'OK, hold on. I can't get to you. I am pinned down. Keep fighting,'" Swenson said.

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Swenson ran across open ground, dodging enemy fire to get to Westbrook. A mounted camera in the Medivac helicopter captured Swenson flashing an orange panel so the helicopter could find him, despite knowing it made him an enemy target.

Staff Sgt. Kevin Duerst of the California National Guard said, "He was completely under control of the whole situation. He knew exactly what had to be done and when."

Swenson and a medic helped Westbrook to the helicopter. And then Swenson gently kissed Westbrook goodbye.

Medal of Honor
More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded. Sgt. Swenson is only the sixth living recipient.

"I believe I was just trying to keep his spirits up and let him know he was going to be OK," Swenson said. "I wanted him to know he had done his job but it was time for him to go."

Swenson went back into the battle, determined to bring home the bodies of his fellow soldiers.

Sgt. Westbrook died three weeks after that battle.

Swenson, 34, left the military in February 2011. He also has a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal and lives in Seattle.

Contributing: Associated Press

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Deanie Wimmer

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