Battle Rattle

Capt. Will Swenson, next Medal of Honor recipient, sends touching invitation to Gold Star families

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Former Army Capt. Will Swenson will receive the Medal of Honor on Oct. 15 at the White House for heroism in a Sept. 8, 2009, battle in eastern Afghanistan. He has invited the families of all five U.S. service members who died as a result of the fight. (Army photo)

Former Army Capt. Will Swenson will receive the Medal of Honor on Oct. 17 at the White House for heroism in a Sept. 8, 2009, battle in eastern Afghanistan. He has invited the families of all five U.S. service members who died as a result of the fight. (Army photo)

Former Army Capt. Will Swenson will receive the Medal of Honor on Oct. 15, more than four years after he and other U.S. forces tried desperately to find and save three Marines and a Navy corpsman who were trapped under heavy fire in the infamous Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan.

Those troops didn’t make it out of the Sept. 8, 2009, ambush alive, but Swenson has not forgotten them. He invited the families of Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Navy Hospitalman 3rd Class James Layton to his White House ceremony, said Susan Price, Kenefick’s mother. Also attending will the family of fallen Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, a soldier who died the following month due to wounds he sustained in the attack.

Price said she has never met Swenson, but was touched by the gesture. She shared the text of his invitation:

We have never met. We have never spoken. But I would like to believe that I know something about each of you through the actions of your loved ones on that day. They were a part of a Team. And you are now a part of that Team. I would be honored for you to attend a ceremony that will acknowledge what that team represented.

The ceremony will be October 15th and 16th, respectively at the White House and Pentagon. If you wish to attend, please contact me and I will provide whatever information I can. I sincerely look forward to meeting you.

Will Swenson

Swenson is said to be close with the family of Westbrook, who served as his senior enlisted adviser on the deployment in which he the Battle of Ganjgal occurred. He was seen in video released by the Army giving Westbrook a kiss on the forehead during the battle, and attended Westbrook’s Silver Star ceremony earlier this year wearing a dark suit and thick beard.

He barely knew the fallen Marines and corpsman, however. They served in another unit, Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan, that worked together on which the ambush occurred. The unit included then-Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who in 2011 became the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in 38 years for his actions that day.

Price said she is looking forward to meeting Swenson and reconnecting with some of the members of her son’s training team who also will be a the White House. She and the other Gold Star families created during the battle have stayed in touch over the last couple years.

“We are the other side of war,” she said. “We represent hope, peace and closure. I pray that Captain Swenson will see this in our eyes, and sense it through our character when we meet in person.”

Dakota Meyer’s interpreter, once scared in Afghanistan, now safe at U.S. Wal-Mart

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Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer posted this photograph on Twitter on Friday, showing himself with the interpreter who fought alongside him in Afghanistan in 2009. Fazel had been afraid for his life, but has been allowed by the State Department to stay in the U.S. (@DakotaMeyer twitter)

In recent weeks, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer has forcefully advocated for the U.S. to allow his former Afghan interpreter into the U.S., saying the man feared for his life after getting death threats from the Taliban.

Fayez, shown at right with Meyer, is now in the U.S. The Marine posted the photograph on Twitter on Friday, adding a note that showed relief.

“Back together finally,” Meyer said. “Fazel is in America.”

Fazel — known in a lot of previous media coverage as Hafez to protect his identify — was in the Ganjgal Valley in eastern Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009, when forces from Meyer’s unit were caught in a fierce ambush staged near the Pakistan border. Meyer, now a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve, received the Medal of Honor in 2011 for heroics in the battle. A soldier also in the melee, Army Capt. Will Swenson, will receive the U.S.’s top award for combat valor in a White House ceremony Oct. 15.

Meyer’s book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghan War,” portrays Fazel as a hero. It says the linguist was with a four-man team of U.S. troops that went missing when the ambush erupted. They covered his initial escape from the village, but he sustained a minor gunshot wound to the right arm in the process. A second round hit him in the armor plate covering his back.

Nevertheless, Fayez volunteered to go with Meyer back into the Ganjgal Valley to help wounded Afghan soldiers and find the missing U.S. troops: Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton. All four men died that day. A fifth member of the training team, Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth W. Westbrook, died a month later from wounds suffered during the battle.

Under fire, the interpreter hopped in and out of the Humvee driven by then-Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez to assist Meyer, according to the book, and later manned the gun turret.

“Twice, Hafez and I got out, climbed up the sides of terraces, found the [Afghan soldiers], and lugged them down the terrace walls to the wash,” Meyer says in the book, using the linguist’s pseudonym. “After we’d loaded two into a Ranger, my brain finally kicked in: I couldn’t be the gunner and the corpsman at the same time. I didn’t need Hafez out there in the fields with me. [Rodriguez-Chavez], though, needed someone on the gun.”

Meyer and the co-author of his book, Bing West, take the U.S. to task for failing its interpreters in an opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post last weekend.

What’s happening is a failure to keep faith with those who fought beside us,” it says. “The State Department has defied Congress by denying visas to thousands of interpreters who, like Fazel, fight alongside our soldiers.”

Gritty war-zone video emerges of Capt. Will Swenson, next Medal of Honor recipient

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Former Army Capt. Will Swenson kisses his wounded sergeant first class during the Battle of Ganjgal during a new video published by CBS News on Thursday. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)

The White House announced on Monday that former Army Capt. Will Swenson will receive the Medal of Honor on Oct. 15, four years after he braved enemy fire repeatedly while leading U.S. forces through a horrific ambush that erupted in eastern Afghanistan.

The Battle of Ganjgal on Sept. 8, 2009, is especially well known because Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer already received the nation’s top award for valor that day. Until tonight, however, few had seen a gritty war-zone video of Swenson on the battlefield during it. A sergeant in the Army National Guard recorded it while working that day on the medical evacuation crew, and shared it with CBS News:

CBS’s presentation of it is good, but touches on only parts of the raw emotion that is intertwined with the battle. It will be interesting to see what else emerges between now and Swenson’s ceremony at the White House next month.

UPDATE: Friday, Sept. 20: The Army released the raw video that CBS published last night. It’s up here:

Dakota Meyer asks: Why can’t the U.S. bring my intrepreter home?

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Dakota Meyer, who earned the Medal of Honor for heroism in Afghanistan, questions why his interpreter has not been allowed to flee danger and come to the U.S. (Thomas Brown photo)

With a deadly firefight raging, five men hopped into a Humvee and rode toward a small mountainside village in Afghanistan looking for a four-man team of U.S. forces that had gone missing in combat.

The possibility that all five men wouldn’t make it out of the village of Ganjgal, in Kunar province, was high. Already, multiple Afghan troops the Americans were training had been cut down by machine-gun fire in a fierce ambush that was launched about dawn on Sept. 8, 2009. U.S. Army officers at nearby Forward Operating Base Joyce had declined to send air support in a timely fashion, leaving coalition forces on the ground scrambling for their lives.

The Americans in that vehicle were Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, Marine 1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo and Army Capt. Will Swenson. They were joined by an interpreter for the unit who already had volunteered to man a gun turret in the battle as Meyer scrambled on foot to help Afghan soldiers who were wounded and still under fire.

Meyer, now a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve, received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Rodriguez-Chavez, now a gunnery sergeant, and Fabayo, now a captain, received the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor in honoring combat valor. Swenson was nominated for the Medal of Honor by the Army, and may still eventually receive it, despite the military launching an investigation into why it was stalled by his chain of command.

The interpreter’s fate was different. Four years later, he is still in Afghanistan waiting for a State Department visa that will allow him to start over in the U.S. The situation has frustrated Meyer to no end, leading him to a media campaign in recent weeks to bring attention to the issue.

The latest appearance was on Fox News yesterday. His interpreter — identified as “Hafez” to protect his identity — is scared that insurgents will get him in Afghanistan, Meyer said.

“In the vehicle that day… there were five of us,” Meyer said. “There was one Medal of Honor awarded, Swenson is up for a Medal of Honor, [there were] two Navy Crosses, and this guy can’t even get a visa?”

Meyer said the U.S., by not helping individuals like his interpreter, will make it less likely others will help the military in the future.

“These guys have done so much,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times an interpreter has kept me out of a bad situation and probably saved lives. If you keep doing this, people will stop helping you.”

The four-man U.S. team that went missing was eventually found shot to death and was recovered. At least eight Afghan troops and another Afghan interpreter also were killed in the battle, according to military documents outlining what happened that day.

Quantico trails named for OEF/OIF battles

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. – Officer candidates will now be training and running on trails named for some of the hardest battles fought by Marines during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Col. Kris Stillings, commanding officer at Officer Candidates School, led a ceremony today here at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. He stood with officer candidates lined up in formation at the newly named intersection of Fallujah and Kunar trails. Sangin Trail, the third to be named, runs slightly to the north.

“These trails, just like the other trails we have here … these names mean something,” Stillings said. “Candidates will run on them, they will hike on them and at times there will be tears on them, just like in the places that they’re named after.”

Col. Kris Stillings explains to the assembled officer candidates why three trails at OCS are being renamed in honor of areas where Marines have operated in the past decade – Kunar, Fallujah and Sangin – on Friday, November 9, 2012. Capt. Ademola Fabayo, who earned the Navy Cross for actions in Kunar Province, Afghanistan was the guest of honor at the ceremony. (Mike Morones/Marine Corps Times)

Navy Cross recipient Capt. Ademola Fabayo was the guest of honor. Stillings said he was there to represent Marine Corps history, since the event was about more than just the naming of trails.

Fabayo was presented with the nation’s second highest valor award in June 2011 for his actions in Kunar province, Afghanistan. Fabayo was credited with extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Ganjgal – the same that earned former Cpl. Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor.

As previously reported, then 1st Lt. Fabayo and other members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa Japan, were ambushed Sept. 8, 2009, in the village near the Pakistan border. Fabayo repeatedly braved enemy fire on foot in order to reestablish connection with Marines and a corpsman at the front of the patrol. Later, he took the gunner’s position in a vehicle and reentered the kill zone to help recover the bodies of missing Marines.

“This captain standing in front of you exemplifies everything that we’re trying to teach you here,” Stillings told the candidates. “Everything that is good about the Marine Corps, everything that we want from our officers – firm leadership, courage under fire, decisiveness and the ability to always look out for Marines.”

Col. Kris Stillings and the assembled officer candidates applaud Capt. Ademola Fabayo, who earned the Navy Cross for actions in Kunar Province of trails renamed in honor of areas where Marines have operated in the past decade at OCS aboard MCB Quantico on Friday, November 9, 2012. Capt. Fabayo was the guest of honor at the ceremony. (Mike Morones/Marine Corps Times)

Fabayo then told the candidates that any of them are capable of demonstrating the same type of leadership in the future. The key, he told them, was to pay attention to Marine Corps history.

“The trails that you see here are telling a story, our story as Marines,” Fabayo said. “I remember running the trails and stopping to read the citations. … When you run down these trails you need to stop and read the citations and see what these Marines actually did.”

Stillings said his operations officer, Maj. Adam Jeppe, approached him with the idea of naming some of the trails for recent battles a few months ago. Since Marines have been involved in many important areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, deciding on the names took some deliberation, he said. The candidates at OCS learn about historic battles, and they decided to include Kunar province and Sangin district in Afghanistan and Fallujah, Iraq.

Marine officer candidates march past the intersection of trails at OCS that were renamed in honor of areas where Marines have operated in the past decade at MCB Quantico on Friday, November 9, 2012. Capt. Ademola Fabayo, who earned the Navy Cross for actions in Kunar Province, Afghanistan was the guest of honor at the ceremony. (Mike Morones/Marine Corps Times)

Candidates Michael Choate, Alicia Peterson and Sky Colvil are all prior enlisted service members who served in the three areas of Iraq and Afghanistan that were honored today. They called the captain’s presence there motivating.

“It’s good to see that Marines are being rewarded,” said Choate, a staff sergeant, now officer candidate, who served in Fallujah. “Marines of his caliber show that any officer can do it if we put our minds to it.”

Seeing a trail named for Fallujah brought back a lot of memories for Colvil, an officer candidate who served there as a Navy corpsman.  As someone who hopes to lead Marines in the future, he took Fabayo’s message to heart.

“It’s good to know that he passes it onto everyone else and challenges you to say, ‘Hey, you can do it too. You do have it if you want to – you can look out for your Marines just as I have done.’ ”

Stay tuned for more from exclusive interviews with Stillings and Fabayo.

 

Media blitz for Dakota Meyer’s new book begins today

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Dakota Meyer poses with his new book at a Barnes and Noble store today. (Twitter photo)

It has been more than a year since President Obama draped the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest valor award, around the neck of Dakota Meyer.

Today, the Marine’s own account of the Sept. 8, 2009, ambush in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, that led to the award hits shelves in bookstores. “Into the Fire,” written with the help of author Bing West, recounts the botched mission in which he and several other U.S. service members risked life and limb in an attempt to recover the bodies of four fellow members of an embedded training team that had gone missing in a maelstrom of enemy fire.

Last month, Meyer provided me an advance copy of his book, then sat down to discuss it. In this resulting Marine Corps Times cover story, he discussed a variety of revelations in the work, including his failed suicide attempt, his anger over what happened that day and what it’s like to be one of the only living Americans to wear the Medal of Honor for actions completed since 9/11.

Foremost, the book is “a matter of capturing what happened,” he said at the time. “It’s all about being held accountable for your actions in life.”

Meyer has been active on his Twitter account today, adding updates about some of the media engagements he has planned to promote the book. He’ll appear on “The O’Reilly Factor” on FOX News tonight, for example.

Undoubtedly, there will be other media appearances in coming weeks. He’ll face questions on everything from what happened to why the former Army captain alongside him that day, Will Swenson, still hasn’t received the Medal of Honor despite being put up for the award. At last check, Swenson’s award nomination reportedly had been moved to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Behind the Cover: In new book, Dakota Meyer unloads

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Last week, I reported for Marine Corps Times that Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer acknowledges in his new book that he attempted to kill himself in 2010, one year after surviving the battle that led to him receiving the nation’s top valor award.

The story generated a wide range of reaction from readers. Some blasted me for writing a story specifically about Meyer’s struggles, even though he chose to speak about it freely in an interview and disclosed the suicide attempt in his forthcoming book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War.” Others praised the story and Meyer’s willingness to share his struggles, saying it may help other people to open up about coping with combat stress.

Today, Marine Corps Times and Army Times alike take it a step farther. In both papers, we outline a variety of details in “Into the Fire” and what it covers. Meyer pulls few punches in the book, especially when outlining what it was like being on a battlefield under fire for hours while officers in a nearby tactical operations center repeatedly denied fire support.

With the assistance of his co-writer, author Bing West, he also lays out how the Army botched a Medal of Honor case for Will Swenson, a former Army captain who fought alongside him in the battle.

In Marine Corps Times, Meyer also discusses what it’s like living with the Medal of Honor. It’s a complicated world, he says, in which many organizations request his time and celebrity and he must deal with “antagonists” who question whether his actions in the Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, have been portrayed accurately.

The book hits shelves on Sept. 25. In coming weeks, it seems likely that you’ll hear plenty about it on national television and other media outlets.

Here’s a video excerpt from our interview last week:

Marine hero Dakota Meyer’s book set for September release

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The cover of Dakota Meyer’s new book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War.” (Random House)

Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer’s new book is scheduled to be released in September, three years after the devastating battle that led to his heroic actions.

“Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War” will be available Sept. 25, according to its listing on Amazon.com. The 272-page book is written by Meyer and Bing West, a Marine veteran who has authored several best-selling works. It will be published by Random House, which also has it listed on its website.

The cover image of the book shows Meyer in Afghanistan in 2009, wearing full battle rattle with an Afghan landscape behind him. The work is described this way on Amazon:

In September of 2009, several hundred Taliban ambushed a company of Afghan soldiers and their Marine advisors. The enemy had the company pinned down, with only one exposed road leading in and out of the village. Twenty-one-year-old Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer disobeyed his commanding officer and took command. Without reinforcements or artillery support, he charged forward down the only road five times under withering fire. He killed a dozen Taliban and rescued 18 Afghans and Americans. The company finally rallied and the enemy pulled back. When the story finally became known, Dakota was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States highest honour. Yet the story of that day remains mired in controversy even now. For a man to charge into fire once requires grit; to do so five times is beyond comprehension.

Dakota’s performance was the greatest act of courage in the war, because he repeated it and repeated it. In this fast-paced narrative of non-stop action, we hear the story from Dakota’s own perspective, and come to know our narrator as a true American hero: a young man raised on a cattle farm in Kentucky with uncompromising morals and a fierce determination to do what’s right.

The numbers of individuals saved and killed were later called into question in a report by McClatchy journalist Jonathan Landay, who was embedded with the unit ambushed that day. It seems likely that the publication of this book would seek to set the record straight.

We’ll be paying close attention to the details in the book here at Marine Corps Times. Since 2009, we’ve published four cover stories heavily influenced by the Battle of Ganjgal.

Previous Marine Corps Times cover stories on Ganjgal
Families outraged over engagement restrictions
Report: Army denied aid to team under fire
Heroism in ambush may yield top valor awards
MoH nominee says he does not feel like a hero

Marine hero Dakota Meyer launches new blog

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Dakota Meyer posted this photograph to his new blog after sustaining a cheek wound while assisting in tornado relief in his native Kentucky. (Courtesy Actions Not Words)

Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer has had a busy year since receiving the nation’s highest valor award in a ceremony at the White House in September.

Mostly, his work has focused on public speaking appearances and raising money for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. However, he’s also become perhaps the first Medal of Honor recipient to actively engage the public on social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter.

On top of that, he’s now added a blog outlining some of his work. “Actions Not Words” was launched March 16, and has been used since to highlight tornado relief work in which he and others have participated in West Liberty, Ky.

The photograph above shows Meyer after he “almost lost my head to a tree limb” that crashed into the cab of his Bobcat earthmover during relief work, he wrote this week. The sight is about 180 miles from his hometown of Greensburg.

Meyer, now a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve, is credited with charging into an open kill zone multiple times on Sept. 8, 2009, in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, in an attempt to save four missing members of his embedded training team.

I’ve reached out to Meyer to get his thoughts on launching the blog and the sights in West Liberty. I’ll add more here soon if I hear from him.

Dakota Meyer’s Medal of Honor saga continues

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Sgt. Dakota Meyer stands in the White House after being presented the Medal of Honor in September. (Associated Press photo)

Sgt. Dakota Meyer was presented the Medal of Honor in September, and it was hard to not get swept away in the excitement.

Hundreds of people packed the East Room in the White House as President Obama hung the award around his neck. Millions more watched the ceremony on TV.

And at the center of it all was a painful situation that will be difficult for families connected to the ambush in which Meyer’s heroism was honored to ever accept.

I’ve written at great length about the Sept. 8, 2009, ambush in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, so there’s no reason to cover the same ground again (the most recent piece posted here). Still, it’s interesting to see various media outlets keep the story alive with fresh coverage, more than two years after the fact.

Several stories appeared over the weekend about Meyer, Ganjgal and where everything stands.

The Buffalo News, for example, focused on the attack from the perspective of Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, a mentor of Meyer’s who died in the battle. Kenefick attended high school in Williamsville, N.Y., and will always be considered a local hero there.

The San Antonio Express-News, meanwhile, has a well done piece highlighting what Meyer has been up to recently — including information about his recently filed lawsuit against BAE Systems, his former employer.

A number of people have asked me my opinion on the suit, aware of the amount of time I spent covering Meyer and the aftermath of the ambush.

I’ll say this much: If BAE Systems wasn’t aware that Meyer would express his opinion loudly and clearly while working for them, they probably weren’t paying attention before they hired him. Meyer doesn’t suffer fools, and I’ve never known him to shy away from saying what he really thinks. Anyone else I’ve met who knows him in any capacity is quick to say that, too.

It’s for this reason that it wasn’t surprising to see Meyer insert himself in the presidential race, either. He joined four other veterans in recent video endorsing Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the next commander in chief:

Meyer seems well aware of the standing the Medal of Honor gives him, and he’s using it in a variety of ways. Notably, the Express-News reports that Meyer has now raised $350,000 toward his $1 million Dakota Meyer Scholarship Challenge to America. The money will benefit the children of wounded warriors through the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.