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Military News

Altman: Mother of Marine strong through medal effort

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Published:   |   Updated: October 21, 2013 at 07:50 AM

She had never met the honoree, former Army Capt. Will Swenson, but she had spent a lot of time over the past few years working to ensure that Swenson, whose medal packet was lost in a miasma of military red tape, received the highest distinction a U.S. servicemember can earn. Price, who will never be considered shy or retiring, wrote letters, fired off emails, contacted friends and reached out to congressional staff, including that of Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and combat-tested Marine veteran.

Like many, Price believed that the Medal of Honor was a distinction Swenson richly deserved, which you can judge for yourself by this section of the medal citation.

On that morning, more than 60 well-armed, well-positioned enemy fighters ambushed Swenson’s combat team as it moved on foot into the village of Ganjgal for a meeting with village elders.

As the enemy unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and machine gun fire, Swenson immediately returned fire and coordinated and directed the response of his Afghan Border Police, while simultaneously calling in suppressive artillery fire and aviation support. After the enemy effectively flanked Coalition Forces, Swenson repeatedly called for smoke to cover the withdrawal of the forward elements.

Surrounded on three sides by enemy forces inflicting effective and accurate fire, Swenson coordinated air assets, indirect fire support and medical evacuation helicopter support to allow for the evacuation of the wounded. Swenson ignored enemy radio transmissions demanding surrender and maneuvered uncovered to render medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier. Swenson stopped administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at approaching enemy forces, before assisting with moving the soldier for air evacuation.

With complete disregard for his own safety, Swenson unhesitatingly led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions, to recover the wounded and search for four missing comrades. After using aviation support to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades, it became clear that ground recovery of the fallen was required due to heavy enemy fire on helicopter landing zones.

Swenson’s team returned to the kill zone another time in a Humvee. Swenson voluntarily exited the vehicle, exposing himself to enemy fire, to locate and recover three fallen Marines and one fallen Navy corpsman. His exceptional leadership and stout resistance against the enemy during six hours of continuous fighting rallied his teammates and effectively disrupted the enemy’s assault.

In addition to Kenefick, who was 30 and had his promotion to gunnery sergeant signed after his death, four other Americans succumbed to wounds received that day. Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Navy Corpsman James Layton and Marine Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr. lost their lives during the attack. A fifth man, Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, who Swenson comforted on the battlefield, later died from his wounds.

So what was it like, I asked Price, to finally meet Swenson?

“Will is a Prince of a Man!!” she wrote in an email. “He is a loving, supportive, intelligent, funny, amazing human being. ... He is the WOW factor and then some.”

The meeting, she writes, came “4 years, 1 month, and 1 week after the death of my son and his fallen brothers that fateful day in Ganjgal. The first meeting was his stare from the stage into the seating arrangement for the Gold Star Families. Will’s penetrating eyes were felt upon our hearts, he possesses a profound image, without trying. ... He is genuine and as real as it gets for he is unconditional with his love for his brothers in arms and their families, which he embraces as his own family now, ordained by a higher order and a spirit and zeal beyond which is apparent. ... Many times reaffirming that we are one family, He being the Medal of Honor, the Embedded Training Team, the Pilots that were a part of the recovery, and our Gold Star Families.

“Meeting Captain Will Swenson for the very first time for me was the UNION that felt more as a REUNION in the names of our fallen sons, husbands and fathers,” she continued, “It was PROFOUND and MAGICAL for it was the beginning of HEALING the layers of Pain from our tragic losses.”

After President Barack Obama performed the Medal of Honor Ceremony, Price said she finally got to meet Swenson in person, as well as the president and first lady.

“Will received us, a hardy embrace and eye to eye we stood,” she wrote, “I thanked him for his bravery that day, it was the strong hug that was missing, validating the void in our lives from our sons, fathers and husbands, as Will represented a part of them in his stance. There are no words that would completely describe our union as it felt more as a reunion, all joined together, the Gold Star Families in one room at this POWERFUL moment in time with the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States of America and the First Lady.”

Meeting the first couple was also interesting, says Price, adding that she delivered a message to Michelle Obama.

She wrote that when she met the president, “he coined us, shook my hand and also a strong embrace. He said that he was sorry for my loss and that he appreciated my families sacrifice.”

Then it was time to meet Michelle Obama.

“I then stood before the first lady, she has the strongest, longest hugs,” Price wrote. “She asked me if she could do anything for me to ease my family’s pain what would that be? As I stood there listening to her I felt compelled to present her with my son’s KIA bracelet, and as I began to answer her question to me, I handed her my bracelet with my son’s name and I said to her the following:

“Ma’am, I would like to gift you my bracelet if you will accept it, so you will never forget who my son is. ... If you will pray for my family, my personal family, as well as our military and veterans. ... Please don’t forget the less then 1 percent of Americans who serve our Great Nation, we are the backbone of America, our sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Please don’t allow what transpired last week to ever happen again, we need to be united, not divided. ... This is how you can serve my family.”

Price says she thanked Michelle Obama again.

“I don’t know what the outcome will be, yet I do know that I wore my bracelet with my Marine son’s name and this piece of metal contained my emotions, from one mother to another,” she wrote, “I would like to believe that the first lady felt my words in her heart, for her eyes were filled with tears she was fighting back, and mine are worn with a heavy heart not only in the name of my son and his fallen brothers, yet for all of America’s sons, I knew there would never be another moment in time such as this and it was my opportunity to advocate openly. The first lady stood there stroking my bracelet which now adorned her wrist, and hugged me once more, her eyes told me what she was feeling and as I stood back to watch the rest of my Gold Star Families present their thoughts and feelings which they carried over the years, it was truly a series of healing unfolding in that room one after another.”

Last chat with Bill Young

Last week, at around 6 a.m., Bev Young called me from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where her husband, Bill, was hospitalized for back problems.

Bev handed the phone to Bill, and we had a quick chat about his decision to not seek re-election.

He told me why, which I’ve already reported.

Then I asked him several questions about what it was like to work in such a dysfunctional Congress and whether, after years of being a facilitator, it had worn on him.

“You have no idea how many things I thought about and all of a sudden, all of a sudden I realized it was my time,” said Young, about retirement, as he was being carted off for yet another surgery. “I’ll be glad to talk to you about all that later.”

Later, of course, never came.

Young died surrounded by loved ones at 6:50 p.m. Friday.

You’ll be missed congressman.

And Bev, don’t stop being the firecracker Bill loved.

Death in Afghanistan

One soldier was killed in Afghanistan last week. Staff Sgt. Patrick H. Quinn, 26, of Quarryville, Pa., died Oct. 13, in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, of injuries sustained when the enemy attacked his base with small arms fire. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, Fort Carson, Colo.
There have now been 2,274 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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