America's military is still fighting in Afghanistan – a fact that has been overshadowed by the state of dysfunction amid the ongoing government shutdown and approaching debt limit.
For the first time in a long while, Americans will be reminded of the war in Afghanistan when the president today awards former Army Captain Will Swenson the Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration for combat valor.
The ceremony is a short but meaningful reprieve from political impasse and negotiations. For the future of Afghanistan, it is a moment to sideline the politics of the U.S. mission. Words such as "strategy" and "withdrawal" won't be mentioned. Rather, it is a moment when the nation's servicemen and women will have their bravery and sacrifice showcased in plain view, represented by a former soldier who was willing to give everything he had, including his own life, to bring his team home.
Swenson will be the first Army officer since Vietnam to receive the Medal of Honor. He is the sixth living recipient of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No recognition is more prestigious, and like other recipients, his actions and character not only reflect the spirit and tradition of the decoration, but also America's best qualities.
In the battle of Ganjgal Valley, Swenson's courage, selflessness and fighting spirit helped lead a group of American soldiers and Marines, and their Afghan counterparts, against an overwhelming enemy force. They fought for nearly nine hours. They took casualties and were even denied artillery fire and air support, but they never relented as Swenson led the recovery of the dead and wounded. They prevailed against the odds.
Thousands have received the Medal of Honor throughout history, but Swenson's award is possibly the most significant to date, while definitively the most significant of the last decade. Following the battle of Ganjgal and his subsequent nomination, he was subjected to even greater negligence imposed by a distorted U.S. Army command culture that oversaw his recommendation.
During a post-battle interview with his superiors, Swenson candidly questioned why he and his men were denied air and artillery cover. Under former Army General Stanley McChrystal, the rules of engagement prevented the delivery of any support for fear of collateral damage. For some military planners, it was safer to put Americans in the kill zone than risk potential hardships for the command.
Two officers were reprimanded for their poor judgment. For Swenson's part, his Medal of Honor nomination disappeared. Records were removed from the awards database and General David Petraeus, who signed the Medal of Honor package, suddenly had no recollection of ever putting his signature on the nomination. There are some things military commanders don't forget. Endorsing a Medal of Honor package is one of them.
Pressure to recall Swenson's nomination finally forced the Army to act on the error. And while it's easier to forgive than to forget, the case directly exposed massive flaws in the Medal of Honor process that were presumably addressed, in this case specifically, to spare any further embarrassment.
It took four years, but Swenson is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. He is owed this honor. And even as the Medal of Honor is draped around his neck, the issues garnering attention on the national stage will persist. For a few minutes at least, the commander in chief and a nationwide audience will be focused on something other than the budget and debt. Attention will be rightly directed to the men and women who keep us safe and their exceptional service.
The politicization of the Medal of Honor awards process is something that the military services must take the initiative to address. Swenson is proof. He's also validation that even when outnumbered or facing unfavorable odds, America's military men and women know how to get things done.