A hero's tale

Capt. William Swenson looks out at the rough terrain of Eastern Afghanistan from a Black Hawk helicopter.
U.S. Army

(CBS News) Last week, at a ceremony in a Washington, Captain William Swenson was a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Behind that ceremony is a hero's tale worthy of note. Here's David Martin:

It's just a few minutes lost in hundreds of hours of video recorded by the crew of a Medevac helicopter in Afghanistan -- a brief sequence which shows something we've never seen before: an American soldier, Army Captain Will Swenson, in the midst of a battle for which he received the Medal of Honor.

"I think the question everybody's going to have looking at that video is, 'Why weren't you wearing a helmet?'" asked Martin

"Well, if you had seen the rest of my Afghans, they also do not wear helmets," said Captain Swenson. "If you're the one guy hanging out with a bunch of Afghans who looks different, that's who the sniper's going to pick."

"So it's actually safer to not wear a helmet?"

"It's camouflage," Swenson said.

He was an adviser to the Afghan border patrol when his unit was ambushed. He called back to base for artillery fire. "That was supposed to be laid down between us and the enemy so we could get up and move off the battlefield without being clear targets," he said.

Swenson's request was denied by officers in the rear who worried about causing civilian casualties.

Now retired, Col. Richard Hooker investigated the battle which claimed five American lives: "Captain Swenson probably made nine or ten different calls for fire before he probably gave up in, in frustration," he told "60 Minutes."

"Did he feel betrayed?" asked Martin.

"You'd have to ask him," replied Hooker. "But it's probably not far off the mark."

"60 Minutes": Medal of Honor recipient recalls deadly ambush

"If I call for artillery support," Swenson said, "I do so understanding the possibility of civilian casualties. . . . But that's my decision. That's my responsibility, my call -- by doctrine -- not somebody who is sitting several kilometers away."

The lack of artillery support left Swenson and his men surrounded by enemy on three sides. Swenson's sergeant and close friend, Kenneth Westbrook, was shot in the neck. "He called out to me and said, 'Will, I've been hit.' I was pinned down at the time and I said, 'All right, hang in there.' He yelled out again, 'Will, I'm losing it. I'm losing blood. Can't keep doing this.' "

A Medevac helicopter landed. Swenson and a crewman helped Westbrook to the helicopter. Just before they took off, Swenson leaned in and gave Westbrook a kiss. He never saw him again. "One month later he passed away at Walter Reed," Swenson said.

Swenson went back into battle in search of four other Americans who had been cut off from the rest of the unit. Chief Warrant Officer Jason Penrod and Sgt. Kevin Duerst were the two Medevac crewmen wearing helmet cams. Over their radio, they could hear the four Americans calling for help.

"They're asking, begging for help from us, artillery, from the attack helicopters," said Penrod, overcome with emotion. "Excuse me . . ."

"It's been more than four years and it affects you like this?" said Martin.

Duerst answered, "It doesn't go away."