Honoring True Brotherhood, and The Cost of Desk Jockey Decisions


This essay was published in Iron Mike Magazine on 25 September.



A few days ago I saw a video of soon-to-be Medal of Honor recipient Captain Will Swenson in combat. The video was taken by a medevac helicopter crewman who flew in to pick up a badly wounded Soldier, Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, during the Ganjgal Valley battle. When I watched it, I almost broke down in tears. Watch what happens right around 1:10.


The Ganjgal Valley battle took place on September 8th, 2009, while I was in Afghanistan. The battle stands out for several reasons. First, we lost five good men from an Embedded Training Team; three Marines and a Navy Corpsman were killed that day, and Army SFC Westbrook died of his wounds 29 days later. In Afghanistan we tended to lose men in ones and twos. The loss of five Americans and nine Afghans in one engagement was a major event.

Second, interference by “leaders” far from the battlefield helped us lose those men. Two captains on duty in Tactical Operations Centers denied repeated requests for air support. They did this despite a radio call from one of the doomed Marines, “We’re surrounded! They’re moving in on us! If [you] don’t give me this air support, we are going to die out here.” One of General Colin Powell’s principles was, “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proven otherwise.” That principle was ignored in Ganjgal, and five American warriors died.

Third, a very young Marine Corporal named Dakota Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts to save his fellow Marines. This was one of the few good results of the battle.

Fourth, Army Captain Will Swenson, who spoke out against the higher-echelon second guessing that helped kill five brave men, was recommended for a Medal of Honor. And his recommendation was somehow “lost”. An award packet that consists of numerous witness statements, after action reports, photographs and radio transcripts, saved as an electronic file and sent to numerous individuals for review and approval, was “lost”. Which meant the statements by Captain Swenson criticizing the rules of engagement and chain of command were also “lost”. Fortunately, the Army “found” the recommendation and Captain Swenson is finally going to receive the medal he deserves.

Last – and most personal to me – not long before the Ganjgal battle, I had the worst day of my military life. I was in a battle, attached to an Embedded Training Team, and we lost a fight. One American and three Afghans were killed, a few others wounded. Higher leaders made the decision to pull us out of a valley after we took those losses. We could have stayed. We could have kept fighting. But we weren’t allowed to. No matter how hard I try, I can’t look back to that day and see it as anything but a defeat.

More than any other incident, that engagement motivated me to write. The decision to pull us out instead of letting us hold ground left me feeling angry, disappointed, maybe even betrayed. I’m still furious when I think back on it. But I also remember something else, something that Captain Swenson’s video brought back to the forefront of my memories.

The day after that fight, I was on my firebase and ran into another American Soldier. This Soldier was a Sergeant First Class like me but had been a regular Army infantryman, an Airborne Ranger, for many years. He was big, blond and muscular, the kind of guy who just looks like a Soldier. He hadn’t been in the valley with us, but had heard about it. He asked me if I was okay.

I gave him a halfhearted nod. I guess I was “okay”. I briefly told him about the fight, and the close calls we all experienced. I described the death of the brave young American, and how frustrated I was at our inability to save him. I told him how angry we were at being ordered out of the valley before the fight was over.

As I spoke to him, two regular Army MPs stood close by, listening in silence. One was male and one female, and they looked about 15 years old. Their eyes were averted, but I knew they were following every word.

I finished the story. The tall blond sergeant shook his head sadly. Then he did something I’ll never forget.

He said quietly, “I’m glad you’re okay, brother.” And he hugged me.

This sergeant and I were friends, but not close. We were on different teams, and he was a regular Army infantryman whereas I was a National Guard support guy. Outwardly, we didn’t have much in common. But that one small gesture cut through any differences we had. For a moment we were two Soldiers, serving in a complicated, frustrating war, caring for each other like members of a close family. Before the hug, and afterward, I was bitter and disillusioned. But for those two seconds of closeness, I knew a brother had my back. And I needed to know that.

Captain Swenson’s video reminded me of those two seconds. But as I watched Captain Swenson’s and Sergeant Westbrook’s last moments together, I realized something. The memory of my brief moment, of a reassuring hug from a brother Soldier, holds about one thousandth the emotion Captain Will Swenson shared with his dying friend in the Ganjgal Valley.

Captain Will Swenson, congratulations on the honor you earned. I hope I get to shake your hand someday.

Sergeant First Class Westbrook, and the other American and Afghans lost that day, rest in peace.


4 Responses to “Honoring True Brotherhood, and The Cost of Desk Jockey Decisions”

  1. Wow. Just wow. Knowing that there are still soldiers performing actions like this fills me with such powerful emotion, i can’t even describe. My hat is off to Capt Swenson, and also to the memory of SFC Westbrook!

    Thanks for sharing this Chris!

  2. But, as proof that Big Green still doesn’t get it, no word on court martials and separations from service for the two 0-3s who screwed the pooch and got better men killed.

    If you can’t punish the guilty, merely rewarding the brave is a hollow substitute. I’m glad they’re doing at least that, but without the other it’s all frosting and no cake.

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