SACRAMENTO, Calif. - During a
ceremony on Oct. 16, 2013 at the White
House, President Barack Obama
hung the Medal of Honor around
Capt. William Swenson's neck to
rounds of applause and the flash
Looking on from the crowd in
attendance were members of the
California National Guard, whom
Swenson had invited as personal
guests. They had been there on
the day that Swenson's actions
during the Battle of Ganjgal
earned him America's highest
Capt. William Swenson, left,
assists severely wounded Sgt.
1st Class Kenneth Westbrook onto
a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter
Sept. 8, 2009, during the Battle
of Ganjgal in Afghanistan. Sgt.
Marc Dragony, right, and Staff
Sgt. Kevin Duerst, foreground
holding an M4 carbine, from the
California National Guard,
assist. The photo is a frame
taken from a video filmed by a
camera mounted on the helmet of
pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2
Jason Penrod of the Nevada
National Guard. (Courtesy Photo)
On Sept. 8, 2009, Swenson, an
active-duty soldier, was part of
an embedded training team of 13
Americans on patrol with
approximately 80 Afghan army and
police near the town of Ganjgal
in northeast Afghanistan.
As they approached Ganjgal, the
group was ambushed by 100 to 150
Taliban fighters. The Americans
and their Afghan allies were
surrounded and taking heavy
fire, and members of the group
sustained severe injuries. A
UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from
the California National Guard's
Company C, 1-168th General
Support Aviation Battalion, was
then called to medevac the
wounded out of the valley.
“We knew what we were getting
into because we had been
listening to the radio for the
past 20 minutes,” said Staff
Sgt. Kevin Duerst of Charlie
Duerst was the crew chief on the
helicopter. Capt. Marco Acevedo
and Chief Warrant Officer 2
Jason Penrod were the pilots.
Sgt. Marc Dragony was the medic,
and Capt. Brendan McCriskin was
the flight surgeon. Duerst,
Acevedo and Dragony were
California National Guardsmen.
Penrod was a Nevada National
Guardsman, and McCriskin was
When their helicopter reached
the valley, small-arms fire,
rocket-propelled grenades and
mortars were raining down on the
American position. Swenson was
engaged in a firefight and was
directing OH-58 Kiowa Warrior
scout helicopters toward enemy
“The first pass we didn't see
him and we started taking fire,”
Duerst said. “We flew right into
the middle of the valley. We
could see the muzzle flashes on
the ground. There were too many
and we knew we had to leave.”
The second time around, Swenson
was easy to spot.
“He was lying on the ground with
[an] orange panel marker on
him,” Duerst said.
The Black Hawk landed and
Swenson ran to it while
assisting Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth
Westbrook, who had been shot and
was in critical condition.
Swenson and the crew loaded
Westbrook onto the helicopter.
The crew then flew him to a
forward surgical team in
The 1-168th crew returned to the
battlefield three more times and
medevaced five additional
wounded soldiers to Jalalabad,
Afghanistan. When the battle was
over, four Americans and eight
Afghan allies were dead.
Westbrook died of complications
related to his wounds a month
later at Walter Reed Army
Three years later, Staff Sgt.
Emmett Spraktes of Charlie
Company learned that Duerst and
Penrod had recorded video that
day using cameras mounted on
Spraktes was not a member of
that crew Sept. 8, but he had
served in Afghanistan with
Company C and had worked with
the crew members who
participated in the Battle of
Ganjgal. Spraktes was writing a
book about Cal Guard flight
medics titled “Selfish Prayer”
and he asked to view the video
as part of his research.
As he watched the footage,
Spraktes saw Swenson and
Westbrook run toward the
helicopter, then Swenson helped
Westbrook aboard and leaned over
and gave the badly wounded
soldier a kiss on the forehead.
“That kiss on the forehead
captured the compassion that he
had and that we all have for one
another,” Spraktes said.
Spraktes contacted Swenson and
offered to send him the video if
he would present it to
Westbrook's wife as a gift
honoring her late husband.
Swenson was happy to oblige.
Earlier this year, Swenson
traveled to Sacramento to meet
Spraktes and the Black Hawk crew
that medevaced Westbrook out of
the valley. They met for dinner
and beers at Spraktes' house and
discussed the battle.
“[Swenson] told them how much he
appreciated them being able to
take Westbrook out of there,”
Since then, Spraktes, Swenson
and the Black Hawk crew have
stayed in touch.
“Capt. Swenson is a quiet and
very humble man,” Spraktes said.
“He is very ethical and
honorable and very loyal to
Swenson invited Spraktes and the
Black Hawk crew to the White
House for the Oct. 16 ceremony,
and Duerst, Spraktes and Capt.
Marco Acevedo were able to
“Just to even be asked, I was
very humbled and honored,”
“We saw what he did and how he
kept going back in and tried to
pull more people out without
concern for himself,” Duerst
said. “I think the award is
By U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jason Sweeney
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