Petraeus advised downgrading Swenson’s Medal of Honor bid, probe finds

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus recommended that the Medal of Honor nomination of former Army Capt. William Swenson be downgraded to a lower award, according to a Pentagon investigation that failed to resolve how Swenson’s papers then disappeared instead of being sent up the chain of command.

The review by the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General was completed just weeks after President Barack Obama on Oct. 15 conferred on Swenson the nation’s highest military award for courage – based on a duplicate file – nearly four years after he was recommended for the award for his actions in a 2009 battle in Afghanistan.

Swenson, 34, of Seattle, expressed disappointment that the investigation didn’t hold any individual accountable for the mishandling of his original nomination.

“An institution can’t heal itself unless it can identify what its weaknesses are, and its weaknesses in this case is an individual,” Swenson said in a telephone interview. “The investigation failed to meet the standard of a military investigation in which individuals are identified.

“Behind every single institutional failure, there’s a name.”

The findings were outlined in a letter the inspector general’s office sent to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine officer who’d requested the investigation as part of a larger effort he’s been pursuing to overhaul a military awards process that he charges is subject to politicization and manipulation.

In a letter to Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks, Hunter said he was dissatisfied with the investigation, explaining that he was concerned that “these findings further exacerbate the inconsistencies and discrepancies surrounding Swenson’s nomination.”

“It is extraordinarily disconcerting that the facts surrounding Swenson’s Medal of Honor nomination, specific to how it was handled and subsequently lost, still cannot be resolved,” continued Hunter, who requested a briefing on the findings.

Swenson was nominated for the medal for helping to extract U.S. and Afghan troops from a vicious ambush in the Ganjgal Valley by up to 60 Taliban insurgents on Sept. 8, 2009. He then repeatedly re-entered the ambush site under intense fire to recover casualties.

Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, 25, of Columbia, Ky., also was awarded the decoration. A McClatchy investigation subsequently found that key parts of the official accounts of Meyer’s actions were embellished, exaggerated or didn’t occur.

In the letter to Hunter, the inspector general’s office said investigators had interviewed Swenson and 33 other unidentified witnesses and had reviewed military award nominations, email records and computer hard drives.

The inquiry determined that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan had “recommended downgrading the MoH to a Distinguished Service Cross, which was within his discretion to do.” That award is the Army’s second highest decoration for valor.

The letter – a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy – gave no reason for Petraeus’ decision and it didn’t identify the retired Army general by name, referring only to the “former commander, USFOR-A,” the initials of the U.S. force in Afghanistan. According to the findings of a 2011 internal U.S. military investigation obtained earlier this year by McClatchy, Petraeus reviewed and signed Swenson’s Medal of Honor packet on July 28, 2010.

In an interview with McClatchy last year before he resigned as CIA director, Petraeus said he had “no recollection” of ever seeing Swenson’s file, a telephone-book-size three-ring binder comprising sworn statements, maps, photographs and other documents supporting the nomination.

On Thursday, Petraeus declined through a spokesman to discuss the letter from the inspector general’s office. The inspector general’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for an elaboration on its findings.

After Petraeus recommended the award downgrade, Swenson’s file was sent back to the section of the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul that processed decorations, the inspector general’s letter said. The file was never forwarded up the command chain.

The investigation found “no evidence a senior official mishandled, lost, destroyed, purged, disposed of or unnecessarily delayed the recommendation,” the letter said.

At the same time, it gave no reason that Swenson’s packet wasn’t forwarded, didn’t explain how digitized copies disappeared from every military computer system and didn’t say why a second Medal of Honor nomination that arrived at Petraeus’ headquarters at the same time as Swenson’s packet was processed without a problem.

The awards section of the U.S. headquarters “frequently lost awards, had unreliable processes and employed inadequate tracking systems,” the inspector general’s office said in its letter. “These weaknesses likely contributed to its failure to both promptly forward the recommendation . . . and accurately track and report its status as a priority action.”

Moreover, the letter didn’t address discrepancies between the inspector general’s findings and the 2011 internal inquiry, which uncovered evidence that a Distinguished Service Cross packet was improperly substituted for Swenson’s Medal of Honor file after the review by Petraeus.

Pentagon regulations limit commanders to three options: recommending that a Medal of Honor nomination be approved, recommending disapproval or recommending that it be downgraded to a lesser award. The nomination files then must be forwarded up the command chain for consideration by their superiors.

Only the president can approve a Medal of Honor nomination.

Email: jlanday@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @JonathanLanday

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
A worker for the Afghan election commission office unloads ballot boxes in Herat Province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 20, 2014. New partial results in Afghanistan's presidential election released Sunday show candidate Abdullah Abdullah is still the front-runner, though a runoff election looks likely.

    Afghan election commission delays vote results

    Afghanistan's election commission has delayed a planned release of full results from the April 5 presidential election to allow for recounts and audits.

  •  
An off-duty helmsman Oh Yong-seok of the sunken ferry Sewol speaks on a bed at Mokpo Hankook Hospital where he gets treatment for minor injuries in Mokpo, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. “He (the ship's Capt. Lee Joon-seok) was generous, a really nice guy,” Oh , a 57-year-old helmsman, said of the boss who always asked about his wife and kids and was happy to dispense personal and professional advice.

    Captain who left doomed ferry had 40 years at sea

    A colleague calls Capt. Lee Joon-seok the nicest person on the ship. Yet there he was, captured in video on the day his ferry sank with hundreds trapped inside, being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats.

  •  
In this picture taken early Sunday, April 20, 2014, Saleh Zawaraa, 28, lies on a stretcher as a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer covers him with a blanket after his 12-hour journey from the Syrian village of Beit Jinn, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and over the 2,814-meter (9,232-foot) high Mount Hermon (Jabal el-Sheikh),into the town of Chebaa in southeast Lebanon. Saleh said he was hit by a tank shell outside of Beit Jinn while trying to bring bread into the village.

    AP PHOTOS: Syrians on treacherous trek to safety

    As the late-day sun slipped behind the mountains in front of them, a ragtag group of around a dozen Syrians desperate to flee their country's bloody civil war set off on their treacherous nighttime trek across the rugged frontier into neighboring Lebanon.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category