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Fallen Marine's mother fought for soldier's Medal of Honor

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Published:   |   Updated: October 15, 2013 at 08:57 AM

For Susan Price, who arrived in Washington, D.C., from her home in Riverview on Monday afternoon, the trip to the nation's capital was years in the making.

It was a journey that began after a deadly Afghanistan ambush took her son's life on Sept. 8, 2009. And it continued through an often torturous bureaucratic process to bring recognition to one of those who recovered her son's body during the battle.

At 2:10 p.m. today, the journey will culminate in the West Wing of the White House as President Barack Obama slips the Medal of Honor around the neck of William Swenson, a former Army captain who repeatedly risked his life to recover the body of Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and three others.

Price will be there to watch it.

“I will be witnessing history on behalf of my son and his fallen brothers,” says Price. “It's about time.”

Kenefick, 30, who had served at U.S. Central Command in Tampa as an aide to then-commander John Abizaid, was part of a Marine Embedded Training Team, working to train the Afghan military. On the morning of Sept. 8, 2009, he was a patrol to the village of Ganjgal to meet with its elders.

But before they could get there, the village lights went out and insurgents opened up with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns. The ensuing firefight would see Kenefick and four other U.S. troops die. And it would spur several investigations, for both what went wrong on the battlefield and why it took so long for Swenson to be awarded his Medal of Honor, the second one issued for the Battle of Ganjgal Valley and only the sixth awarded to a living recipient.

Susan Price says her world was upended when she found out her son was killed.

But the pain of losing a child to war would be compounded as she learned that the mission he was on was poorly planned and poorly executed, with a lack of support from aircraft and artillery that might have made a life-saving difference. It was further compounded by the fact that unlike Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who received a Medal of Honor two years ago for risking his life to help recover the bodies of Kenefick and others killed that day, Swenson, who criticized the chain of command during the investigation into what went wrong in Ganjgal, had to wait.

“We have been waiting so long for Capt. Swenson's Medal of Honor,” says Price. “It was ambushed.”

Susan Price prides herself on being “a people person” and, as the daughter of a Marine, “a grab-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of gal.”

She did just that in the wake of her son's death, reaching out to the families of the other fallen, the military and the congresswoman representing the Buffalo area where her son grew up.

It was through then-Rep. Kathy Hochul, D-N.Y., that Price, who had been agitating for change in how the military carried out its missions, learned that not only was that change in the offing, but that officers in charge of the mission were being disciplined.

Price then turned her attention to making sure that Swenson – like Meyer did on Sept. 15, 2011 – received his Medal of Honor.

Price stirred the pot from Riverview, again reaching out to the families and contacts. As it turns out, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine combat veteran who fought in the Battle of Falluja in Iraq, also took up Swenson's cause, as he did with others “in an effort to preserve the integrity of the Medal of Honor.” So Price reached out to him as well.

In an Aug. 9 letter to the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General, Hunter asked why Swenson's Medal of Honor had been delayed when he and Meyer braved the same elements. And he asked how it was “possible for Capt. Swenson's packet to disappear from the Army's computer system dedicated to awards, with the exception of an incomplete version on a classified system?”

Jonathan Landay, a McClatchy newspapers reporter who was embedded with the team during the Battle of Ganjgal Valley, has blistered the military over Swenson's “lost” award packet, writing among other things that former Army Gen. David Petraeus had no recollection of seeing Swenson's medal documentation even though an Army investigation into the matter shows that Petraeus had signed off on it.

Joe Kasper, Hunter's deputy chief of staff, says Price first contacted him through Hunter's official Facebook page about a year ago.

Among other things, she provided a copy of the Army investigation into what went wrong on the battlefield, saving the office time and effort.

“That was extraordinarily helpful,” says Kasper. “She was absolutely beneficial.”

The Medal of Honor citations for Meyer, who co-wrote a book about his experience, and Swenson are very similar, recounting how they and others repeatedly entered the “kill zone” to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades.

Though what the two men told investigators about the battle differs on some levels, these facts are indisputable: Kenefick - eventually promoted to gunnery sergeant - 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.

Though she says she still has questions about what happened and why, Price says that Swenson's Medal of Honor ceremony will finally provide a sense of closure to the families who lost loves ones in Ganjgal.

Monday afternoon, Price, who says she is looking forward to finally meeting Swenson, says she is unsure “how I will feel to be in the room with all these people and see this person get a Medal of Honor who we have been pushing for.”

But she says she does know how her son would react.

“Aaron would be saluting Capt. Swenson in spirit,” she says. “Not because he is receiving the Medal of Honor, but for being a man of honor and doing the right thing.”

haltman@tamaptrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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