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I Was There: A Medal of Honor Moment

During an ambush by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in 2009, California Guard Staff Sergeant Kevin Duerst witnessed Army Captain William Swenson risk his life to evacuate comrades, a feat that led to Swenson getting the highest decoration for valor
During an enemy ambush in Afghanistan in 2009, California National Guard SSG Kevin Duerst witnessed the bravery of Army CPT William Swenson, who saved at least a dozen lives and went on to receive the Medal of Honor. Photo by Bill Mahon
During an enemy ambush in Afghanistan in 2009, California National Guard SSG Kevin Duerst witnessed the bravery of Army CPT William Swenson, who saved at least a dozen lives and went on to receive the Medal of Honor. Photo by Bill Mahon

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As it got close to dawn, Sergeant Marc Dragony, a medic, and I were lying in the back of our UH-60 Black Hawk with all of our gear on, tired as could be, because we’d been up all night. Over the radio, we started hearing OH-58s (Kiowa helicopters) talking about a battle in a valley called the Ganjgal. My pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Penrod (of C Company, 1/168th, Nevada National Guard), looked at a map. We heard they needed a medevac, so we called our base and told them, “We’ve got this. We’ll hit it on our way home.”

We flew about 3 miles south to the valley. We circled while the scout aircraft engaged the fight, shooting and taking out enemy positions. Someone with the call sign “Highlander 5”—who I learned later was Army Captain William Swenson—called for a medevac.

By regulation, that put us in control of the battle space. “Push off to the edges,” we said. “We’re coming in.” We came down from 2,000 feet to about 100 feet, maybe lower, and slowly flew up the valley. The ground was all terraced—no plants, just dirt and dust. We flew up the center, looking on all sides for Swenson.

We flew directly over him, but we didn’t see him. He radioed back that he saw us. It’s a lot easier for a guy on the ground to see a helicopter than it is for guys in the helicopter to see a guy on the ground.

“How can I draw you guys to me?” he asked. Penrod said, “Do you have the orange panel marker?” He did, and Penrod told him to hold it up. It was bright orange and easy to see, but it was also easy for the enemy to see, too, so he was putting himself at risk to save the others with him. The terrace we landed on barely held our Black Hawk. Swenson was carrying Army Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, who was badly injured.

As soon as we landed, I got out. As the crew chief, it’s my job to protect the aircraft, so I was going up to the nose with my rifle. Swenson came up to me and started telling me enemy positions, where some of his other guys were and that he needed to go get them. As much as someone can have a situation like that under control, he did. He knew exactly what was where and what he needed to do.

They loaded Westbrook onto the aircraft, and Swenson left to rejoin the battle. The medics took care of Westbrook as we flew to the hospital. He was shot in the neck, had three broken ribs and a shattered shoulder. We were afraid he was bleeding out. We flew to Asadabad, radioed ahead and told them we had an emergency. We landed, and there was nobody there. There had been a mass casualty just west of Asadabad. They were already overwhelmed.

I ran off and found a Kawasaki Mule with a bed in the back. A guy was about to get in it. My heart was racing, and because I had my helmet on, I couldn’t hear, so I screamed at him. “You need to get up here to the aircraft; we have a guy who is shot in the neck!” We put Westbrook sideways in the Mule on the stretcher. They went tearing off toward the hospital.

We took off again and headed back down to Ganjgal to help Swenson. As we flew, we called for him. He said he was in an unarmored Ford Ranger Afghan police truck. I could hear it being hit over the radio. He said, “Ah, crap, there goes my right tire. The mirror just got shot off. I just lost my windshield. Now my engine’s hit.”

“Highlander 5, how can we find you?”

“Just look for the smoking truck,” he said.

We landed and found out Swenson had gone back and rescued five of the Afghan Soldiers he was with. They were injured, but they were alive in the back of the truck.

I laid across the nose of the Black Hawk with my M4 rifle pointed at the enemy. The medics ran out of the back and helped load up the Afghans. We took off, headed for Jalalabad, because Asadabad was already too crowded.

We saw an Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk, call sign “Pedro,” so we called to the Airmen and said, “We’re completely full; you need to come in and start pulling people out.”

“OK, show us where,” they replied.

“I’m going to throw purple smoke over the area where you need to land and pull people out of,” I told them. We turned a right bank, and I threw a smoke grenade in the landing zone, and we headed out.

The five Afghans survived. Westbrook passed away a month later of complications. In 2013, his family was presented a posthumous Silver Star for his gallantry during the battle.

Four years later, one of my medics, Staff Sergeant Emmett Spraktes, C Company, 1/168th General Support Aviation Battalion, California National Guard, started to write a book, Selfish Prayer, about various missions that had happened in Afghanistan. [Spraktes won a Silver Star for treating and removing wounded Soldiers from an earlier firefight with the Taliban in Afghanistan in July 2009.] He asked Dragony what was the worst mission, and he said the Ganjgal.

The helmets Penrod and I had worn that day had cameras on them. As Spraktes conducted research for his book, he pulled out my video of the Ganjgal firefight. It had sat unwatched in my closet all that time. When he watched the video, he saw something we had all missed that day: When Swenson had loaded Westbrook onto the helicopter, the last thing he did before leaving was to lean in and kiss him on the temple.

That was really hard for me to watch. It’s emotional to look at it. I know what it’s like to lose people that you know in battle. You just see them leave, and that’s it. You never see them again. 

After Spraktes saw that, he found Swenson in Seattle and offered to pay to fly him to California. He told Swenson we had something to show him.

I watched Swenson as he watched the video. His eyes got huge. This was it. These were the actions that eventually would lead to him getting the Medal of Honor. [Although Westbrook died one month after the Battle of Ganjgal, Swenson’s brave actions saved at least a dozen lives that day.]

I was with Swenson at the White House when he got the medal. It wasn’t just for him, it was for all the Soldiers on the ground, and it was for us who came in to get them out, too.

I visited Swenson this winter. We email and talk on the phone. I’m going to know him for the rest of my life. We will always have a connection because of what happened that day in Ganjgal.

EVENT: Battle of Ganjgal

WHEN: Sept. 8, 2009

WHERE: Kunar province, Afghanistan

CHALLENGE: Army Captain William Swenson (shown at right with President Barack Obama) and Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook served as embedded advisors for Afghan nationals, in support of the 10th Mountain Division. Before a meeting with village elders, the advisors and Afghan nationals were ambushed by 60 Taliban fighters.

IMPACT: Four Americans and nine Afghan nationals lost their lives. Swenson re-entered the kill zone twice and coordinated air support and evacuation of his wounded comrades, saving 12 lives. Assisting with the medevac was California Guard Staff Sergeant Kevin Duerst, a Black Hawk crew chief, C Company, 1/168th General Support Aviation Battalion. On Oct. 15, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Swenson, now retired, at the White House. Read more about the ambush and rescue here.

Photo from U.S. Army