Book excerpt: "Selfish Prayer"

Capt. William Swenson sits in Task Force Chosin mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle while conducting a shura, October 2009.
U.S. Army

(CBS News) In 2009, Afghan insurgents ambushed a company of Afghan National Army troops, U.S. Marines and Army soldiers who had assembled for a meeting with village elders in Ganjgal, in Kunar Province near the Pakistan border. In a lengthy battle five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter were killed.

The events of that day would be investigated by SSG Emmett William Spraktes, author of the book, "Selfish Prayer." It recounts the actions of Army Captain William Swenson, an embedded trainer who this week received the Medal of Honor for risking his life in the battle to recover bodies and help save fellow troops.

The following is an excerpt from Spraktes' "Selfish Prayer," reprinted with permission.

A hero's tale
Medal of Honor recipient asks to return to active duty
William Swenson, Afghan war veteran, awarded Medal of Honor by President Obama

Ambush at Ganjgal

"The best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing you can do is something. The worst thing you can do is nothing."
-- Theodore Roosevelt

"Highlander 5 gave the clearest sense of urgency, had coordinated the first rescue and in the absence of air support, risked his life to rescue the ANA soldiers those Marines had died defending. Fox 31 and Fox 33 were on the radio but very emotional, though who could blame them? Their fellow Marines were being cut down and begging for help. As cold as this may sound, I had no choice but to ignore 31 and 33 in order to focus on the one player on the ground who seemed to have a grasp on this insane situation, Highlander 5."
-- CW2 Jason Penrod

Kunar Province
8 September 2009

It had been a long and arduous summer. We had just one month left in theater. We were worn out, yet the fighting continued. It seemed the Taliban wanted to spill as much blood as they could before the cold weather returned. On September 8, it seemed the entire country was battling.

Barge Matal was still raging. We'd been there dozens of times, even after the election. The violence continued about seventy-five days straight, and we'd lost many soldiers there. But President Karzai had asked if we could take back Barge Matal to allow the election to take place, and our commanders obliged. This meant that COP Keating would have to stay put for the time being. To get supplies to Barge Matal, we had to have COP Keating in place. The Apaches were up there often -- they were the only gunships that could fly in that altitude. The Chinooks were going back and forth up there as well, taking in supplies.

The cover of "Selfish Prayer" by SSG Emmett William Spraktes. Createspace

There was also a full air assault going on in the Shuriak Valley. Many of Task Force PaleHorse assets were engaged there. We suffered casualties in that battle, two of them our own PaleHorse element.

Then there was Ganjgal, a small village located east across the valley from Asadabad. The ground was scarred with long-abandoned agricultural terraces separated by a dry wash. The elders of the village had invited ANA representatives and American advisors to participate in what was called a key leader engagement. There were Marines, ANA soldiers, and a couple army soldiers who met with the local village elders. But as the meeting started, insurgents imbedded within the village opened fire and cut them to pieces. It was an ambush! Our men scattered for cover, and a several-hour battle began.

DUSTOFF 25 had already launched from Asadabad. The team on board was CW2 Jason Penrod, LT Marco Azevedo, CPT Doc Kavanagh, SGT Marc Dragony, and SGT Kevin Duerst. They were on standby for another operation in the Shuriak Valley but then were redirected to Ganjgal when it went bad. By the time DUSTOFF arrived, there were two Kiowa 58s already on station.

After getting an update from the lead 58 pilot, the DUSTOFF crew realized the Marines and ANA were caught in the open. Listening to radio traffic, Penrod heard Highlander 5 demanding the 58s shoot at the village so they could escape the kill zone. The pilot refused and asked where the fire was heaviest. He seemed unimpressed with the critical nature of the situation, almost like he was engaged in a different fight.

Highlander 5 screamed back over the radio, "From the village! Shoot the village!" Again, the lead pilot refused, because of the rules of engagement -- gunships were not allowed to shoot into the village.

While circling above the fight to the west, DUSTOFF 25 saw how dire the situation was. The enemy had gone to great lengths to set up the ultimate ambush. Our Marines and ANA were out in the open without any cover. The insurgents held all the high ground south, north, and east. The only way out was the open dry wash, though it afforded no protection.

While Penrod attempted to locate the casualties through the 58 pilot, it became clear to him that the entire area was blanketed with small-arms, machine-gun and RPG fire. An occasional smoke trail disappeared into the rising dust from machine-gun rounds impacting the ground. Watching from afar and listening to these guys die was not where Penrod and the crew wanted to be.

As Penrod listened to the radio traffic on the ground, he was able to identify one key player in the rescue team. It was Army Captain William Swenson. He and Penrod connected via radio. Swenson explained he had a soldier shot in the neck who was bleeding to death, and his position was on the southwestern edge of where the rounds were impacting the terraces.