Every once in a while, there comes a hero whose bravery earns him or her America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Retired Army Captain William Swenson is one of those heroes—he received his Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama Tuesday.
Swenson, 34, was recognized for his courageous actions on September 8, 2009—the day of a brutal, seven-hour firefight against Taliban insurgents near the border of Pakistan that left four Americans, 10 Afghan soldiers, and a translator dead. Amid the turmoil, Swenson ran back into enemy fire repeatedly to rescue and evacuate both injured Americans and Afghan soldiers.
“As one of his fellow soldiers later said, ‘Will did things that nobody else would ever do, and he did it for his guys and for everybody on the ground, to get them out,’” Obama said at Tuesday’s White House ceremony.
Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and the families of four of the fallen soldiers from that day were among the 250 guests at the ceremony.
“Captain Will Swenson was a leader on that September morning. But like all great leaders, he was also a servant to the men he commanded, to the more than a dozen Afghans and Americans whose lives he saved, to the families of those who gave their last full measure of devotion on that faraway field,” Obama said. “You don’t have to ask Will for help; he just knows when to be there for you. So Will Swenson was there for his brothers. He was there for their families. As a nation, we thank God that patriots like him are there for us all.”
Swenson dedicated his medal to the entire U.S. military. “It does not really belong to me; it belongs to that event and the people I stood with,” he told the Washington Post. Find out five more key facts about the courageous veteran, below.
1. He wants to return to active service—which is unheard of for Medal of Honor winners.
In what’s widely regarded as an extraordinarily rare move, Swenson has asked to return to active duty. “We are currently reviewing his request and processing it within established policy,” an Army spokesman, George Wright, told the Washington Post. But before he can return to service, Swenson would have to undergo a drug test and background check.
2. He’s living in Seattle and currently unemployed.
Swenson left the Army in 2011 (he joined in 2002) and has been living in the Washington city ever since. He’s not currently working; instead, “I like to call this my extended vacation,” he told ABC News.
3. He was caught on camera.
Swenson’s bravery on that hallowing day was the first time actions that led to a Medal of Honor have been filmed, Obama said at Tuesday’s ceremony. The video was caught by cameras attached to the helmets of evacuation helicopter pilots who were at the scene.
The president recounted one particularly touching moment from the video: “Amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he does something unexpected. He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head—a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms,” Obama said.
The poignant clip shows Swenson helping another soldier, Sgt. First Class Kenneth Westbrook, who had been hit in the throat, onto a helicopter. “I wanted to convey to him that I was proud of him and that his fight was over,” Swenson said of kissing Westbrook goodbye. “He had done everything he could and it was time for him to go,” Swenson told ABC News.
Westbrook, a married father of three, later died from his wounds. His wife, Charlene, was present at Swenson’s ceremony.
4. His path to the Medal of Honor wasn’t perfectly smooth.
After the September 2009 battle, Swenson criticized Army superiors—he leveled that they didn’t send sufficient air and artillery support during the firefight. As a result, Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination was delayed, and the Army launched an investigation into the events of the battle, eventually reprimanded two other Army officers.
However, another soldier who helped rescue wounded and deceased soldiers that day, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, earned a Medal of Honor in 2011. Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, Swenson has conveyed that Meyer’s account of what happened that day may not be entirely accurate.
5. He’s the most decorated Army officer since the Vietnam War
Swenson has also been awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. “Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best,” Obama said Tuesday. “A nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard—maybe especially when it’s hard.”
Watch the raw video of Swenson’s battlefield bravery: