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U.S. Army captain awarded Medal of Honor for valor in Afghan ambush

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Retired U.S. Army Captain William Swenson, who rescued wounded soldiers under fire during a deadly Afghan ambush, was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. recognition for valor, on Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

Swenson, 34, of Seattle, saved the lives of more than a dozen U.S. and Afghan troops under heavy fire from Taliban fighters who ambushed his patrol in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, Obama said at a White House ceremony.

"Will, you are an example to everyone in this city, and to our whole country, of the professionalism and patriotism that we should strive for, whether we wear (a) uniform or not," Obama said.

Swenson, the first Army officer to win the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War, was part of a U.S. team training Afghan security forces when about 50 Taliban insurgents attacked it in September 2009 at Ganjgal, a village in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province.

Swenson repeatedly charged into insurgent fire to rescue wounded U.S. and Afghan soldiers, using an unarmored pickup truck and a Humvee military vehicle. Four Americans and eight Afghans died in the firefight.

Swenson ran under fire to injured Army Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, bandaged his wounds and threw a grenade at insurgents urging the U.S. and Afghan forces to surrender, Obama said.

Swenson then carried Westbrook hundreds of yards (meters) to a medical evacuation helicopter, a scene captured on the helmet cameras of the aircraft's crew.

Video released by the Defense Department shows Swenson leaning into the helicopter and kissing the wounded Westbrook on the head, "a simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms," Obama said.

Westbrook died a month later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

AIR, ARTILLERY SUPPORT

Swenson, who served in the Army from 2002 to 2011, also called in air and artillery support, recovered the bodies of dead soldiers and coordinated a counterattack, his Medal of Honor citation said.

After the ceremony, he told reporters his medal was earned by a team comprising Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and Afghan forces, along with the families of those who died.

"This medal represents them. It represents us. Thank you," said Swenson, who declined to answer questions.

Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor in September 2011 for saving 36 of his comrades' lives during the same ambush. The Columbia, Kentucky, native was the first living Marine since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor.

After the firefight, Swenson, of the 10th Mountain Division, criticized the lack of air and artillery cover, and two officers received reprimands following an inquiry, the Marine Times reported in 2011.

Swenson's paperwork to receive the Medal of Honor was lost, creating a delay in the award. His case was reopened in 2011 at the urging of Marine Corps General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that a rift existed between Swenson and Meyer, who has written a book about the battle, "Into the Fire," and has said he will run for Congress.

The Post said Swenson was skeptical of the attention Meyer, now 25, had received. He also has disputed the Marines' account of the fighting, saying it exaggerated Meyer's role, the newspaper said.

Meyer, now a Marine reservist, lobbied for Swenson to get the Medal of Honor. On Monday he retweeted a tweet by Marine Times reporter Dan Lamothe in which Meyer told him he hoped Swenson "finds peace."

The Ganjgal firefight was only the second time in half a century that two Medals of Honor have been awarded for the same battle.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by David Gregorio and Cynthia Osterman)

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