WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 15, 2013) — Just before dawn Sept. 8, 2009 and under a full moon, Capt. William D. Swenson and a contingent of Afghan forces made their way slowly on foot, crunching the gravel under their boots through a mountain valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border.
With one tour in Iraq and on his second deployment to Afghanistan, Swenson was serving as an embedded advisor for the Afghan Border Police. He points out that as an advisor, he wasn’t there to lead the Afghan police or the Afghan National Army soldiers, known as the ANA.
“With the Afghans, one cannot overtly lead — they are their own military, independently run by their own leadership, but you can also influence them with advice and your presence,” Swenson said. “Show your professionalism to them, then you exhibit leadership when they don’t even know it’s there. They’ll follow your example, your character, so was I leading anyone? No. Was I offering an example for them to follow, yes.”
Swenson, in support of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), was leading an Afghan Border Police, or ABP, Mentor Team, working directly with just one other American Soldier, colleague and friend Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook. Together the two were mentoring along with a U.S. Marine embedded training team, or ETT, under a different chain of command. Even so, Swenson said the Soldiers and Marines worked very closely together, harmonizing and collaborating on similar objectives.
This was a routine mission — Operation Buri Booza II — one like the Afghan soldiers and police as well as the Americans had done dozens of times before. The column of 106 troops moved from the Observational Rally Point towards the village. The road they trekked melded into a boulder-ridden, gravel-strewn washout which led directly to the hillside village made up of thick-walled mud buildings with mud-thatched roofs. Swenson recalled the village structures had the appearance of World War II pillboxes with small, narrow, slit openings.
At the washout, about half the coalition and Afghan National Security Forces, known as ANSF, split off to the north and south to establish support positions. Swenson and Westbrook continued toward the valley with the remaining troops.
At the front of the column approaching the village were four ETTs — three Marines and a Navy Corpsman — and their ANA counterpart. Behind them was the command element, or Tactical Action Center, referred to as the TAC, led by Maj. Kevin Williams and consisting of 1st Lt. Ademola D. Fabayo, a Marine ETT operations officer; First Sgt. Christopher Garza, ETT first sergeant; an ANA radio telephone operator, or RTO; and Jonathan Landay, an embedded reporter with the Marine ETT. To the rear of the TAC and their ANA counterparts were Swenson and Westbrook, with their ABP counterparts.
The column of 65 men moved cautiously toward their objective, Ganjgal, a village fixed on a mountainside situated on man-made farmland terraces three and four meters tall. The village terraces extended all the way up to where the trainers were expecting to have tea with the elders who had invited them up to assess possible improvements to the village mosque.
“We were not there to fight, we were there to have the Afghan forces prove to an unreceptive audience that the government was fair, professional, responsible, and most importantly, it was Afghan,” he said.
Though a large or heavily-armed enemy was thought to be unlikely and no intelligence reports suggested any evidence of insurgents, historically patrols would get hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, known as RPGs, but that usually happened as coalition units were moving out of a village.
Slowly, methodically the column moved nearer the village, studying the landscape that could be hiding improvised explosive devices. Then like a switch, the village lights went out, the first clue that bad things were about to happen.
“The valley is notorious for welcoming you in, and your farewell present is always fire — always,” Swenson said. “This time they were changing things up and greeted us with fire, but the seriousness of that did not become immediately clear.”
Just as the lead Marines moved within 100 meters of the village, an RPG motor ignited from the front of the column, but before the round had time to impact, the combined force was hit by crew-served machine guns, RPGs and AK-47s from the valley to the east. Deadly, accurate fire hit the formation on its way to the village.
An estimated 60 insurgents had infiltrated and maneuvered into Ganjgal from the north and south through unseen trenches as heavy fire spewed from houses and buildings. According to eye-witnesses, village women and children could be seen shuttling ammunition and supplies to the Taliban fighters.
As the Afghan forces scattered to take cover and return fire, command and control via radio began to break down. Swenson and Westbrook pulled alongside the Marine command element in their Afghan Police Vehicle (a Ford Ranger truck) to find out the TAC was becoming untenable. The decision was made to withdraw when it became apparent that ANSF and coalition forces were losing the initiative.
“The enemy realized they were gaining the initiative and that our fires were ineffective,” Swenson said. “We called in artillery, but we couldn’t put it where we wanted to, and they saw that as a deficiency on our part and exploited it. This was a maneuvering enemy, a thinking enemy, an aggressive enemy, and a new enemy.”
Coalition forces had been flanked and were taking rocket and artillery fire on three sides from multiple angles and elevations by the advancing Taliban. The TAC lost communication with the forward Marines, Sailor and interpreter. Wounded Afghan soldiers and border police were calling for help.
Swenson called repeatedly for white phosphorous smoke to shield the coalition and allow them to withdraw. He was repeatedly denied the incendiary rounds on the basis that the drop would be too close to a populated civilian area. The closest obscuring effect of the shells was placed 400 meters away, too distant to be effective as cover for the withdrawal.
“A difficult decision was reached that we were no longer combat effective. 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. 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.”
The Marine leader, Williams, had been shot in the arm and his first sergeant, Garza, had eardrums ruptured by an RPG. The wounded were accumulating. Unable to physically evacuate the wounded down the steep terraces and out of the kill zone, Swenson coordinated for combat helicopter support, then learned his partner Westbrook had been isolated and lay in the open, suffering a chest wound.
Negotiating 50 meters of open space, Swenson, Garza and Fabayo quickly covered ground, zig-zagging and returning fire as they raced for Westbrook. Despite the maelstrom of direct fire which had killed two ANA soldiers and wounded three others, the team was holding their own in the kill zone.
As Swenson administered first aid and kept in radio contact with the helos he’d called for, Fabayo saw three insurgents moving from a house to within 50 meters of the TAC. Fabayo made direct visual contact with one insurgent wearing fatigues, body armor and a helmet who began waving at him and demanding surrender. Fabayo called to Swenson about the insurgent’s demands. The captain calmly put down his radio, halted the first aid and replied with a personal message by throwing a hand grenade.
Having witnessed Swenson’s example, the ANA soldiers and policemen of the TAC rallied to push the insurgents back and beyond hand grenade range. At about the same time, a team of OH-58D Kiowa Scout helicopters carrying a combination of missiles, rockets and .50-caliber machine guns came on scene.
“We did receive our aviation support, the Kiowas,” Swenson recalled. “They’re aggressive, like little bees, they swarm all over the place, quick, nimble. The enemy knows when helicopters show up, it’s in their best interests to find somewhere to hide. If the enemy is out in the open, they’ll be found and that will be a bad day for them.”
The arrival of the Scouts gave the TAC the time it needed to move Westbrook and other wounded down the steep terraces to the Afghan Border Police trucks, which then carried the wounded to a landing zone where a UH-60 Black Hawk medevac waited.
Swenson and Fabayo then manned one of the unarmored ABP Rangers and re-entered the kill zone twice to evacuate wounded and bringing them to a casualty collection point. Next Swenson and Fabayo went in search of the missing Marines, while staying in constant contact with one of the helicopters, which was also trying to locate them.
At the same time, Marines Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez and Cpl. Dakota Meyer were retrieving wounded in an up-armored Humvee. By 8 a.m., and still no contact with the forward element and their truck on its last legs, Swenson called in a Combat Search and Rescue helicopter, but it became clear the LZ was too close to enemy positions and RPG teams.
Ground recovery of all remaining casualties would be the only way to do the job and it would mean moving into the kill zone again. Swenson called a quick planning session at the casualty collection point and made the decision that he, Fabayo, Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer, with a small contingent of ANSF following, would move toward the village to search for the still-missing Marines and their corpsman.
Around noon, the CSAR helo spotted the location of the missing five men who had all been killed in an open courtyard area, then stripped of their armor and clothing. As the bird tried to land, it was forced out by close RPG fire. Swenson called for smoke to mark the location of the bodies and to provide cover for Swenson’s up-armored Humvee to get in to extract the fallen.
As their Humvee climbed to the top of the hill with Fabayo operating the M240 machine gun and the vehicle coming under heavy fire, the Kiowa helicopters continued to suppress known and suspected insurgent strongholds. Coming to a stop adjacent to the forward group’s position, Swenson and Meyer, along with help from ANA soldiers and border police, found and removed the bodies from a deep trench. The casualties were placed in the back of an ANA Humvee as Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez provided covering fire.
Recovery complete, the Humvees drove back down the wash and straight to the rally point to verify accountability of all ANSF soldiers.
A mission that started as one of good will became a struggle for survival. The immediate cost to the coalition was the loss of four Americans and eight ANA soldiers. The battle would eventually cost one more American life.
Westbrook was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and seemed on the verge of recovery then complications developed as the result of a blood transfusion in Afghanistan, which initially saved his life. He passed away Oct. 7, a month following the battle. His wife, Charlene, said she was grateful to Swenson for all he did in giving her husband the extra time to spend with family. On April 19 of this year, his family was presented a posthumous Silver Star for his gallantry during the battle.
The end of that long day in September four years ago was not the conclusion of the Battle of Ganjgal, Swenson said, “that happened later when U.S. and Afghan forces came together on a larger scale.
“Relief forces came from Jalalabad, from Asmar, from all over Afghanistan,” he said. “There was loss, terrible loss, but we brought forces in to continue that mission, to finish that mission, to clear that village, and to show what our resolve was and what our response would be.”