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Pentagon chief apologizes for lost Medal of Honor nomination

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel apologized on Wednesday to a former Army captain whose nomination for the nation's highest military honor was misplaced for two years after he complained about a lack of artillery and air support during a deadly 2009 firefight in Afghanistan.

Former Army Captain Will Swenson received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Tuesday for heroism during the battle of Ganjgal in Kunar Province and was inducted on Wednesday into the Pentagon Hall of Heroes, which lists the recipients of the military's top award for valor.

Thirteen members of an Afghan force with U.S. trainers were killed or mortally wounded during a six-hour firefight after they were ambushed on September 8, 2009, while on patrol near Ganjgal village.

The dead included three U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman. An Army soldier who was treated and carried to a helicopter by Swenson died a month later of his wounds.

Swenson repeatedly called for assistance, either air support or artillery-fired white phosphorous smoke to shield the movement of the allied forces to enable their withdrawal. But the phosphorous was denied due to concerns about the possible proximity of civilians. Helicopters did not arrive for hours.

Swenson's criticism of the response prompted an investigation that led to the reprimand of two Army officers. At the same time, paperwork nominating him for the Medal of Honor was lost for two years.

His case was reopened at the request of Marine General John Allen, who was commander of international forces in Afghanistan.

Hagel and top Army officials praised Swenson both for his bravery in the 2009 battle and for his courage later in pointing out the military operation's shortcomings.

"Will Swenson proved his valor on the battlefield. It is well-documented," Hagel said. "But he also did something else that represented tremendous courage and integrity. ... He dared to question the institution that he was faithful to and loyal to."

Hagel acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in the handling of Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination, but he said the Army had recognized the error and taken steps to correct it.

"We're sorry that you and your family had to endure through that, but you did. And you handled it right and I think that deserves a tremendous amount of attention and credit," he said.

Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno also recognized Swenson's actions.

"Even after the battle, Will was not afraid to point out deficiencies in the operation that caused difficulties in obtaining the appropriate and timely support necessary," Odierno said. "He recognized the importance of assessing performance and had the character to stick to his convictions."

Army Secretary John McHugh likened Swenson's case to that of Army Specialist Leslie Sabo, who was killed in 1970 in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Sabo was nominated for the Medal of Honor but his paperwork was lost for 40 years before being discovered in the National Archives by a writer who brought it to the attention of authorities. The honor was presented to his widow in 2012.

McHugh said he had ordered new requirements on Wednesday for the handling of all Medal of Honor nominations. Once a nomination is made, it must immediately be reported to Army Human Resources Command so its progress can be tracked, he said.

McHugh said the parallel process would provide "greater oversight" and "ensure that no future award packet is lost along the way or ... somehow forgotten in the fog of war."

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Paul Simao)

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