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President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson of Seattle during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington on Oct. 15, 2013. Swenson was being awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in a lengthy battle against Taliban insurgents in the Ganjgal valley near the Pakistan border on Sept. 8, 2009, which claimed the lives of five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter. / Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP

When Army Capt. William Swenson received the Medal of Honor last year - the first living officer to earn one since Vietnam - he received more than the traditional accolades.

He also got an apology.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered a highly unusual mea culpa at the Pentagon ceremony Oct. 16, noting that Swenson's nomination packet got lost within U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan amid a whirlwind of politics, controversy and intrigue.

Speaking directly to Swenson, Hagel said: "We're sorry you and your family had to endure through that."

The details of how Swenson's packet got lost were revealed for the first time in a Defense Department Inspector General report released to Military Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The original packet was last seen after it left now-retired Army Gen. David Petraeus' desk, when the powerful four-star commander recommended that the honor be downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, according the IG.

Why Petraeus made that recommendation is unclear; he told IG investigators that he had no recollection of Swenson's nomination package. However, the IG concluded that other evidence "outweighed Gen. Petraeus' testimony" and that he had, in fact, endorsed the packet with a downgrade.

While Petraeus' memory may have been fuzzy, he acknowledged to the IG that he knew about Swenson and a controversy the young captain helped fuel.

Swenson had criticized Army commanders for denying a request for airstrikes on Sept. 8, 2009, when his unit was ambushed. Swenson repeatedly ran in and out of a kill zone to retrieve fellow soldiers, both wounded and dead.

Petraeus told IG investigators that Swenson's criticisms reflected a broader problem of how approval for close-air support for troops under fire "had become overly bureaucratic."

Concerns about Afghan civilian casualties were weighed against supporting troops in danger, which Petraeus described as a "very, very tough issue," according to the IG.

Swenson's Medal of Honor packet hit Petraeus' desk July 27, 2010, according to the IG, a time when the U.S. headquarters in Kabul was focused on the controversy surrounding the use of airstrikes.

About a week later, on Aug. 4, Petraeus announced a new "tactical directive" regarding airstrikes. Ground troops welcomed the change and perceived the new directive as a shift away from the unpopular rules of engagement that had prioritized protecting civilians at the expense of troops' safety.

About that same time, Swenson's nomination package got lost for more than a year. After the packet left Petraeus' desk, his headquarters staff failed to forward it to U.S. Central Command and Army Human Resources Command, according to the IG.

Petraeus did not respond to a Military Times request for comment.

Swenson told the IG that he made some "powerful enemies" in the Army after he criticized the higher-ups. He said he believed his initial Medal of Honor nomination was deliberately derailed in retaliation for his criticisms.

About a year after the packet was last seen on Petraeus' desk, Army officials began asking questions about the status of the nomination and initially could not find any record of the packet in the service's computer systems.

In July 2011, Army officials in Afghanistan's Regional Command East found the packet and refiled the nomination, according to the IG report.

But Swenson declared that the Army's investigation into the matter was flawed and said he would not accept any award until his concerns about official misconduct were resolved.

Concerns on Capitol Hill helped spark the IG investigation, which was finalized last October but withheld for nearly six months after the FOIA request from Military Times.

The IG found "there was no evidence that a senior official mishandled, lost, destroyed, purged, disposed of, or unnecessarily delayed the recommendation."

But critics on Capitol Hill still have questions about Petraeus' role in the matter.

"Petraeus' statements seem to suggest that MoH nominations were flying off his desk, too many to count. But that's nonsense," said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Medal of Honor file went missing from Petraeus' desk

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