By Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the ArmyOctober 16, 2013
Good afternoon everybody. It's good to see so many people here. It's really a privilege to see such a great turnout to honor Captain William Swenson, who today joins a rare fraternity of military service members who have displayed extraordinary acts of valor during exceptional circumstances, with great risk to their own personal safety.
Captain Swenson embodies the essence of a Soldier and represents what every man and woman who dons this uniform strives to be: an individual who has earned the trust of all with whom they associate; one who possesses a humility and selflessness that we all respect; one who embraces esprit de corps and routinely demonstrates a dedication to his profession that epitomizes the ethos of the American Soldier. In the face of imminent danger, he never quit. He always put his mission first. He never accepted defeat. And above all else, he never left his fallen comrades. Just as he was there for them that day, his friends, his band of brothers are here for him today.
On September 8th, 2009, five service members made the ultimate sacrifice, and their presence is felt in the hearts of everyone here. We remember 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps; Gunnery Sergeant Aaron Kenefick, U.S. Marine Corps; Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps; Hospitalman 3rd Class James Layton, U.S. Navy; and Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, United States Army. We are honored to have their Gold Star family members here with us today, so I would ask them to please stand and be recognized.
I'd like to recognize our distinguished guests: Secretary Hagel, the Secretary of Defense -- sir, thank you for being here; Representatives Jeff Denham from California and Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii -- thank you so much for both being here; Secretary McHugh, the Secretary of the Army and Acting Secretary Fanning, the Acting Secretary of the Air Force -- thank you for being here; General Marty Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- sir, thank you for being here; Generals Mark Welsh, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force; General Gordon Sullivan, the head of AUSA and the 32nd Chief of Staff of the Army; General John Campbell, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army; and Sergeant Major of the Army Ray Chandler, my battle buddy -- thank you for being here; and other distinguished guests from our Department of Defense and Army leadership that are joining us today, and Marine Corps and all our other service members.
I'd like to extend a special welcome to Captain Swenson's family and friends: his father, Carl, and his mother, Julia; and Ms. Kelsey Long. I also like to recognize several members of the Marine Corps and Army who were on the ground with Will that fateful day in Ganjgal. Thank you so much for your service to our nation, your sacrifices and dedication. Your presence today reinforces the personal nature of combat and the strong bonds formed under extraordinary conditions. I'd like you all to stand as well to be recognized.
It was on September the 8th, 2009, that Army Captain Will Swenson and Sergeant First Class Westbrook were part of a combined patrol with Afghan National Border Police and an Afghan National Army unit and their 12 Marine Corps advisers and Navy medic. Together, the group set off for the village of Ganjgal in Kunar Province, to meet with village elders and discuss the creation of a local security force.
Just after dawn, as they approached the outskirts of the village on foot, they were ensnarled in a vicious ambush. Over 60 well-armed insurgents began firing heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, and small arms from entrenched positions in the village and the surrounding mountains. Captain Swenson and the patrol were pinned down behind low stone walls while a lead team was trapped in a courtyard. Sniper rounds and explosions impacted closer and closer while the insurgents taunted the patrol over the radio, demanding their surrender. As the enemy began to envelop the patrol, the reality set in that the men were surrounded, out manned and outgunned.
Captain Swenson began radioing for artillery and aviation support, but the brigade's Aerial Scout Weapons Team was already supporting other troops in contact to the north. Dangerously exposed, he repeatedly called for smoke to conceal their withdrawal. The men continued to hold their ground, and at one point, the enemy got so close that Will threw a hand grenade to keep them at bay. As the patrol bounded back, continuous enemy fire wounded many of the men, including the ranking officer, Major Williams, and Captain Swenson's teammate, Sergeant First Class Westbrook.
In the fury of the attack, Will took charge. With one hand, he treated Sergeant First Class Westbrook, and with the other he held a radio hand-mic, identifying enemy targets to a Scout Weapons Team that had just arrived on station. Receiving word of a MedEvac helicopter inbound, Captain Swenson exposed himself to enemy fire and marked the landing zone by holding a signal panel on top of him. As the helicopter landed, Will loaded Sergeant First Class Westbrook inside and returned to the battle.
As the majority of the patrol withdrew from the valley, Captain Swenson returned to the kill zone in an unarmed truck to evacuate the dead and wounded Afghan soldiers and police. Next, he organized a recovery party for the lead team of three Marines and Navy corpsman that were still trapped in the initial ambush location. Then he drove back into the ambush zone, stopping to treat wounded Afghans and mark their locations for extraction.
While aerial platforms searched for the missing service members, Captain Swenson waited in the open, continuing to take fire from the enemy. The enemy contact was so intense that a Combat Search and Rescue helicopter sent to assist was unable to land. After an hour, the helicopter located the missing men and confirmed that they had been killed in action. Once again, Will exposed himself to continuous enemy machine gun fire to recover his fallen comrades and return them to base.
Captain Swenson symbolizes what is best about our Soldiers and our Army. Taking charge on the battlefield early that morning, Will led a team of brothers-in-arms against great odds, and rallied them in their efforts to save each other. In the end, the battle lasted nearly six hours, and Will had returned to the kill zone four times to treat and evacuate wounded service members and coalition partners.
On September 8th, 2009, Captain Swenson demonstrated incredible competence: technical and tactical proficiency, leading a joint and combined team under fire, taking an extreme situation and performing to the best of his ability. He demonstrated commitment to every fellow service member, to our multinational partners, and he brought honor upon our nation. He demonstrated great character: he understood the inherent trust that must exist between service members. In combat, the uniform you wear is inconsequential. What matters are the men and women you live, sleep, eat, and fight with -- and that unspoken commitment that you have to each other. Captain Will Swenson's strength of character is undeniable. 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. He recognized the value of assessing performance and he had the character to stick to his convictions. That's how we grow as Soldiers; that's how we grow as an Army; that's how we grow as a joint force.
By honoring Captain Swenson's actions today, we honor the heroes who have sacrificed for this nation, along with every service member who has raised their right hand to defend this country and our ideals.
Throughout our history and over the course of the last twelve years of war, I have seen first-hand how U.S. Army Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have served with the competence, character, and commitment that our great nation deserves. Captain Swenson is the epitome of these qualities and much, much more, having demonstrated his leadership in the ultimate crucible of combat. The strength of our nation is our Army, the strength of our Army is our Soldiers, the strength of our Soldiers is our families, and this is what makes us Army Strong. Thank you very much.