ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor today, the nation's highest decoration for combat bravery. It went to an Army officer who risked his life to save his fellow soldiers, and to recover the bodies of his fallen comrades.
The battle happened back in 2009 - a horrific, six-hour firefight in Afghanistan. The president called former Army Capt. William Swenson a leader who was there for his brothers. NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Captain Swenson was an adviser to the Afghan Border Police on the morning of Sept. 8th, 2009. He and a team were heading to a meeting with village elders in a remote part of Eastern Afghanistan. Suddenly, they were met by 60 well-armed Taliban fighters. President Obama picked up the story.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Rocket-propelled grenades, mortar, machine fire, all of this is pouring in from three sides.
BOWMAN: Capt. Swenson immediately returned fire and called in for air support. But he was told by superiors that he was too close to a village, and that air strikes might kill innocent civilians. Swenson ran under fire and gave aid to Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, who was shot in the neck.
OBAMA: By this time, the enemy has gotten even closer, just 20 or 30 meters away. And over the radio, they're demanding the Americans to surrender. So Will stops treating Kenneth long enough to respond by lobbing a grenade.
BOWMAN: The Taliban continued to swarm, and there were still Americans trapped by the fighting.
OBAMA: So Will does something incredible. He jumps behind the wheel of an unarmored,Ford Ranger pick-up truck. A Marine gets in the passenger seat and they drive that truck - it's a vehicle designed for the highway - straight into the battle.
BOWMAN: Swenson hopped out and was able to recover the dead, all the while under fire.
SGT. DAKOTA MEYER: You know, we all were just trying to do whatever it took to get in and get those guys out.
BOWMAN: Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who was in the vehicle that day, recalls what it was like. Meyer himself was awarded a Medal of Honor two years ago, an award that eluded Capt. Swenson until today. What was left unsaid at the ceremony is that the Army originally lost the paperwork for Swenson's Medal of Honor. Army officials called it a bureaucratic bungle. A second packet was submitted in 2011 by Marine Gen. John Allen, then the top commander in Afghanistan. The general also wrote a letter of apology to Swenson for the delay.
Swenson's supporters say the delay was because Swenson criticized Army officers the day of the fight. He pleaded over the radio for help to save his team. Later, Swenson complained to investigators that he was being second-guessed by officers in air-conditioned headquarters. Two Army officers at that headquarters later received letters of reprimand for negligence that directly led to loss of life.
Dakota Meyer wrote a book last year about the 2009 ambush, questioning why Swenson was not awarded a medal. Meyer also wrote a letter to a senior national security official at the White House, calling Swenson a centerpiece of the fight.
MEYER: He's a true definition of a hero.
BOWMAN: Again, Dakota Meyer.
MEYER: I don't know why it took so long but, you know, I'm glad he's finally getting what he deserves.
BOWMAN: Swenson downplayed his own actions standing in the White House driveway after the ceremony.
WILLIAM SWENSON: But this award was earned with a team, a team of our finest: Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and our Afghan partners standing side-by-side.
BOWMAN: Swenson now lives in Seattle, and often hikes into the nearby mountains. He's been unemployed since he left the Army two years ago.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.