War stories often include accounts of the special camaraderie that develops among warriors.
Far more than mere friendship, a bond develops out of the imminent danger faced during conflict that can span a lifetime, long after the fighting stops. Such was the case for a group of warriors deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.
According to the National Geographic series: “No Man Left Behind,” the fierce ground battle near the Afghanistan border created many friendships that typical terms cannot measure.
September 8, 2009 started like so many days downrange. A contingent of 100 coalition warriors set off on foot before the first light of dawn. U.S. Army CPT William D. Swenson along with border police officers and Afghan troops made their way toward a small village known as Ganjgul in Kunar Province (about 100 miles east of Kabul).
Swenson, a part of the ABP Mentor Team, received the task of supporting the 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry. The mission was to secure the country’s border while enhancing Afghan training efforts. The Marines led a similar squad of Marine-embedded Afghan police.
There were many dangers, some apparent, some just beneath the surface. It was slow going. IEDs were possible but rare in the area. However, the slightest misstep could still cost a life or a limb. Battle seasoned in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Swenson understood the delicate nature of participation in coalition efforts.
Operation Buri Booza II started like many other joint force operations. Village elders in Ganjigal sought the ABP’s help in rehabbing the local mosque. The Americans could not overtly lead the mission according to Swenson, “They are their own military, independently run by their own leadership, but you can also influence them with advice and your presence.”
After a lengthy march, the group reached a rally point not far from the village. There, they divided forces. One led by Swenson and 1st SGT Kenneth Westbrook continued on the path while Afghan National Security Force personnel split up to support positions north and south of the village.
Everything seemed to go as expected. The danger wasn’t in approaching the village, that would materialize when it came time to leave the area. “The valley is notorious for welcoming you in, and your farewell present is always fire—always,” Swenson said.
Suddenly, as the team neared the village, every light went dim… Swenson and his team were Trapped! AK-47s fired a hailstorm of bullets on the team. Taliban fighters had infiltrated the valley through concealed paths stretching north and south of the village.
It seemed as though everyone was an enemy combatant; even women and children carried weapons and ammunition to the well-hidden Taliban fighters. Witnesses claimed that 60 Taliban soldiers entered the firefight. Therefore, no one was above suspicion. It appeared the Taliban had been tipped off and received aid from area sympathizers.
Amid heavy fire, coalition forces found refuge wherever they could. Return fire did little to abate the situation. Then when things appeared at their worst, the situation turned even more deadly.
Blindsided completely, the coalition forces withdrew. RPGs assaulted them from three directions. They took small arms fire. Worse yet, artillery support was not possible. The enemy seized every advantage.
Making matters worse, the communication with the forward force of Marines was lost. Border Police Officers lay side-by-side with Afghan soldiers, cut down by the fierce fire of the Taliban. RPGs pinned Swenson and his team down as the number of life-threatening injuries mounted.
Difficult to Withdraw
The battlefield erupted with small arms fire, artillery shells pounded continuously and mixed with the screams of the wounded. Grasping at straws, Swenson requested white phosphorous for cover. Desperate as the situation was, command turned down the request.
“We were going to be overrun, so we started a controlled withdrawal, but it was not the decision we wanted to make because we still knew we had the Marines up ahead,” Swenson said. “We didn’t know where and were hoping, just hoping, they’d taken cover inside a building and stayed there, thus the break in communication. And we just didn’t know, but what we did know was that we’d be no good to them where we were, so we began our withdrawal, with additional casualties.”
Although the Marines bravely stood their ground, Taliban forces overran their position. The scene was total carnage as Taliban troops stripped the fallen Marines of anything useful.
Swenson and his team took heavy casualties. MAJ Kevin Williams, Marines’ Tactical Action Center leader, took a hit to the arm. 1SGT Christopher Garza was severely injured when an RPG’s concussion took out both eardrums. Swenson saw Afghan Border Police Officers bleeding on the bleak battlefield.
Despite the obvious need to escape, there was no clear pathway, and time was quickly running out. The complexity of the situation intensified when Swenson caught sight of his friend, Westbrook prone and bleeding from his chest where enemy fire was at its worst.
Every Second Counted
Time was a luxury, so Swenson and Garza fired on nearby insurgents. They moved quickly to Westbook’s position. Garza laid down suppression fire as Swenson approached his friend 50 feet away. Enemy fire intensified, but Swenson was resolute in his rescue effort.
Air support units, OH-58 Kiowa attack helicopters called in by Swenson, hit the scene as he rendered first aid to Westbrook. It was all he could do to slow the bleeding, so Swenson never saw the insurgent who advanced on his position demanding his surrender.
Although surprised by the sudden turn of events, Swenson managed to hurl a grenade as he threw down the radio he used to call in air support. The insurgent fled for cover, and the remaining Afghan and U.S. forces rallied, pushing the Taliban back.
A short time later, air support arrived, carrying ammunition and scattering the insurgent forces. In time, Swenson and his team were able to move Westbrook out of harm’s way and evacuate him for medical treatment via a Black Hawk helicopter.
No Man Behind
Although many warriors would have been content to call it a day, Swenson saw more to be done. Commandeering an Afghan pickup, Swenson and his team reentered the kill zone to extract wounded warriors, not once, but twice in an unarmored vehicle!
Finally, word came down from Combat Search and Rescue teams that the bodies of the fallen Marines had been spotted. A CSAR air unit attempted to land near the site, but heavy RPG fire near the landing zone forced them to fall back. Smoke grenades marked the spot as a ground-based recovery team went in.
Swenson, Marine SSgt Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, Marine Cpl Dakota Meyer, and Marine 1st Lt Ademola Fabayo drove an armored Humvee toward the smoke in the distance under cover from scout helicopters. Swenson took constant heavy fire. The M240 machine gun on the Humvee allowed Swenson and his team to remove the Marine casualties from a deep trench floor.
The valor demonstrated by Swenson and his unit was deep within them. It was there at the exact moment the unit was in need. Recognition of that valor took longer… much longer!
Doing What is Right
U.S. President Barak Obama awarded Swenson the Medal of Honor on October 15, 2013, four years after the battle at Ganjgul ended. It is the highest accolade the U.S. military can bestow on a serviceman or woman. It reflects bravery and heroism in the line of duty.
According to Obama, “Moments like this, Americans like Will, remind us what our country can be at its best—a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another, not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard,” said President Obama. “Especially when it’s hard. Will, you’re an example—to everyone in this city, to our whole country—of the professionalism and patriotism we should strive for—whether we wear the uniform or not.”
What causes a man to reach deep within himself to rescue another? Acts of heroism are not rare on the battlefield, but that doesn’t mean they are common among men. Inside the warrior is a deeply-rooted sense of responsibility to do all he/she can to come to the aid of another warrior. It’s a bond of common hardship serving as the basis of an enduring kinship.
God designed it to be that way for Christians too. As believers, we are all called to be heroic warriors for God. We are to fight against God’s enemies and any cultural influences that threaten our well-being as believers. We sacrifice for one another, knowing that the ultimate sacrifice was paid on our behalf on Calvary by God Himself, through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Maybe you are asking: “What battlefield?” What enemy? Historic examples of battles fought for political purposes that had spiritual significance far beyond the outcome of a single campaign fill the Bible.
God’s enemies often ensnare and enslave His chosen people deception as even force. Jesus Christ Himself was arrested, tried, and convicted on politically motivated false charges. His crucifixion was one last attempt by the devil, a fallen angel, to disrupt God’s authority and install himself as a dictator in His place.
Similarly, the war for souls is no different today. Forces of evil use every tactic possible to disarm and defeat God’s people. Using religion and a religious spirit is a favorite tactic. It can cause God’s people to divide over minor differences.
It doesn’t have to be that way!
Christ’s church will be triumphant. It comes through the heroic sacrifice of one believer on behalf of another. Christian men and women have the responsibility and calling to stand for each other amid a heavy spiritual firestorm.
Believers have a calling to stand firm for God in the midst of any battle by standing with one another in good times and bad. We can learn from the example set by CPT Swenson (and heroes before him) by staying in the battle zone when others would consider “calling it a day.” We need one another, and even one casualty of the faithful is too much to bear or accept.
Warriors face daunting personal battles. Some simply can’t understand the depth of despair and darkness most warriors have experienced. Some sell themselves (and their fellow-warriors) short by isolating themselves in the heat of a personal battle.
And all the while, God intends that we fight for each other, that we go back into the firestorm to prevent even one more casualty from depression or PTS.
If you are facing a battle that seems hopeless, there is help. The Warriors’ Journey exists to help warriors like you take the necessary steps to regain a life worth living. Click the response button that best fits your reality. Someone will connect with you as soon as possible. Life is a journey that is not best to walk alone!