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Senate Talks on Hold; Medal of Honor Recipient Ceremony

Aired October 15, 2013 - 14:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

Let me just say this, in just a couple minutes, some inspiring news out of Washington for a change. How about that? President Obama expected to award the Medal of Honor to a former U.S. Army captain who risked his life to save others on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Just reading through this man's story, it's incredible. So we will play that for you. You will hear it. You will see him. We'll take that ceremony live for you on CNN.

But first, after weeks and weeks here of this back and forth, the tedious game of chicken, the question on Capitol Hill right now, deal or no deal?


REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Our leadership team met with our members today trying to find a way forward in a bipartisan way that would continue to provide fairness to the American people under Obamacare. There are a lot of opinions about what direction to go. There have been no decisions about what exactly we will do.

I have made clear for months and months that the idea of default is wrong. We shouldn't get anywhere close to it.


BALDWIN: Well, here's the thing, Mr. Speaker: We are very close to that deadline.

I want you to take a look at the clock, 33 hours to go before the U.S. runs short of its money to pay its bills. Right now the only beacon of light we have is this framework of a possible compromise. You like how I have to couch that, possible compromise. This is a bill being worked on by House Democrats. But don't get too excited here. The White House has already said, uh-uh, they've already rejected this. And Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, let's not forget, he's still working on his own bill with his Democrat counterpart, Mitch McConnell, says the House proposal is a nonstarter.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Mr. President, the House Democrat leadership's plan that is now out and people have taken a look at it, it's a plan to advance an extreme piece of legislation, and it's nothing more than a blatant attack on bipartisanship.

This bill that they're sending over here is doomed to failure. It's doomed to failure legislatively, and it is so awful, awful, awful for our country.


BALDWIN: Adding to the challenge, this House Democrat bill is struggling for support, especially among Democrats.

Let's take you to Capitol Hill to our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

And, Dana, there's so many moving parts here. Let me just start with, what's the state of play right now? Where does this stand?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are waiting for the Senate Republican leader and the Senate Democrat leader to hopefully come out to this podium right here. They are currently meeting with their respective caucuses, trying to get a lay of the land from them and, more importantly, give them a lay of the land.

But, basically, here on the Senate side of the Capitol, they're in a holding pattern. They're waiting to see what happens in the House. Why? Because the House proposal that you just talked about, that we learned about in detail early this morning, is now also on hold because House Speaker John Boehner doesn't have the votes right now, or at least didn't about an hour or two hours ago, that magic 217 votes that he needs in order to pass that plan through the House. So he is struggling right now behind closed doors with his fellow leaders, with the rank and file, to figure out if that plan can pass, if they need to tweak it a little bit to lure conservatives. It's sort of been the same old story that we've heard from the House for some time, except this major difference is, we are right up against the deadline right now.

BALDWIN: And what about John Boehner? I mean here - take me behind this Republican caucus, Dana. I mean how much of a lift is this for Speaker Boehner? How much of a toll is this for him? And, once again, his people are revolting.

BASH: Right. And, you know, the fascinating thing about John Boehner is that if he is ever stressed out or, you know, if this is getting to him, he never shows it. He has a rule, which he didn't have before he was speaker but he has now, not to talk to people like me and other reporters in the hallways. So just even an hour ago, I followed him down the hall from the House floor to his office, tried to ask him questions and, you know, he, you know, sort of has this look on his face like, I know you know that I can't talk to you, and I'm not going to talk to you. He doesn't answer the questions.

But, look, he has taken his caucus down this road for two and a half weeks now that they wanted to go on, at least a good number of them wanted to go on, and he didn't want to do it in the first place. The road meaning attaching any kind of changes to Obamacare to the idea of funding the government. He didn't want to let the government shut down, but we're here. He didn't want to come up to the brink of defaulting, but we're here. And the feeling, at least up until this morning, among some of his closest confidants, is that he had built up so much good will among his fellow Republicans and trust that he was going to take it to the nth degree, that if and when we got to the point where he had to finally put a bill on the floor that not all his members would support, that they would understand and maybe focus their ire not on him but on the White House, on the president, on Democrats who wouldn't compromise.

But the fact that he had to, once again, put another plan together, even though this Senate plan has been working for 24 hours now with the help of Mitch McConnell, his Republican counterpart, is quite fascinating. The flip side is, we know that John Boehner was in Mitch McConnell's office yesterday and, you know, sometimes maybe we give these guys too much credit for planning, but maybe this was part of the plan because if something passes the House and comes to the Senate, procedurally, technically, it will be much easier for the Senate to do this quicker for reasons I won't bore you with with regard to Senate rules, but it will be much easier for them to do it quicker. The issue now though is right back in John Boehner's lap. Is John Boehner able to even get the votes for this procedural vote to pass the House? We don't know.

BALDWIN: I hear all the background noise. I see everyone behind you. As soon as we do see one of those leaders step forward and start speaking, we'll come back to you and to the scene there on Capitol Hill. Dana Bash, thank you.

And if there is one thing investors hate, it is uncertainty. And that is what we have right now in Washington and in New York. Take a look at the big board here. Dow Jones Industrial average is down just about 50 points here with all this uncertainty, quite pervasive, not just in Washington, but clearly in the markets as well. We're keeping a close eye on that. You can go to to watch the numbers yourself.

Much more on the special coverage out of Washington coming up, including this secret meeting. Did you hear about this? Republican Senator Ted Cruz had this meeting inside this burrito joint last night on Capitol Hill.

But first, coming up next, as promised, history in the making, folks. Here are live pictures inside the White House. In a matter of moments, the president of the United States will be awarding the Medal of Honor to just the sixth living recipient for his bravery on the battlefield in Afghanistan.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Outnumbered, outgunned, and we've taken casualties.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was completely under control of the whole situation. He knew exactly what had to be done and when.


BALDWIN: You will hear what Army Captain William Swenson did and how he stood up to his own bosses in the Army. You're watching CNN's special live coverage. Stay with me.


BALDWIN: We are keeping a close eye on this scene, bottom part of your screen there on the right, inside the White House, because any moment now, former Army Captain William Swenson will become the sixth living recipient of the Medal of Honor. He will receive it for showing extraordinary bravery during a battle in Afghanistan where his unit was, quote, "outnumbered, outgunned, and taking casualties." He is the first Army officer to receive the award since the Vietnam War. But after this battle, he actually found himself in yet another fight, just him against the Army. Here is CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a helicopter ride into the hell of war and the soul of Captain William Swenson, a soldier who refused to leave anyone behind and spoke up to senior commanders when it all went wrong.

FORMER CAPT. WILLIAM SWENSON, MEDAL OF HONOR DESIGNEE: And what happened that day was a result of clouded judgment. It was a result of clouded judgment on behalf of people who did later receive letters of reprimand.

STARR: In this valley four years ago, Swenson and his men were ambushed in one of the most brutal fire fights of the Afghan War. Swenson said his men did not get urgently needed air support, a claim validated by the Army. Then his nomination file was said to be lost. Now he is finally receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest combat award.

It was early morning when the column of more than 100 U.S. and Afghan troops started up the valley's narrow path. Enemy fire opened up from three sides.

SWENSON: We are now outnumbered, outgunned, and we've taken casualties.

STARR: Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook (ph) is shot in the throat and laying out in the open.

SWENSON: He called out to me and said, "I'm hit." And he wasn't panicked. There was no indication of pain. I called out to him, "all right, hold on, I can't get to you. I'm pinned down. Keep fighting."

STARR: Swenson runs across open ground, dodging enemy fire to get him. Sergeant Kevin Duerst was crew chief of the medevac helo coming to get the wounded. A helmet-mounted camera captured Swenson flashing an orange panel so the helicopter can find him, but it makes him an enemy target.

STAFF SGT. KEVIN DUERST, CALIFORNIA NATIONAL GUARD: He was completely under control of the whole situation. He knew exactly what had to be done and when. STARR: Swenson, and the medic, helped Westbrook to the helo. And then a moment amid the mayhem. Watch as Swenson gently kisses Westbrook good-bye. Swenson has no memory of it.

SWENSON: I was just trying to keep his spirits up. I wanted him to know that it was going to be OK. And I wanted him to know that he had done his job. But it was time for him to go.

STARR: Swenson, determined to get everyone out, went back into the battle with others still under fire to find and bring out the bodies of dead American and Afghan fighters. Sergeant Westbrook died a few weeks later.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


BALDWIN: As we await the ceremony at the White House, here he is, Jake Tapper, host of "The Lead," and author of "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor."

Jake, I know each of these stories is so different. You have written about so many of them. But as Barbara sort of outlined in that piece, you know, one of the things that makes Captain Swenson's story so unique, not just of course the bravery exhibited by rushing in, you know, to recover the bodies of his fellow soldiers, but because he criticized leadership for failing to provide help in the fog of battle.

JAKE TAPPER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "THE LEAD": And this is something that I've heard about while reporting the book you mentioned, which takes place nearby. We should point out of the - I think it's -- this is the ninth Medal of Honor going to a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. And most of these Medals of Honor have gone to soldiers for battles in one of two provinces in the eastern part of Afghanistan, either Kunar province or Nuristan province.

And one of the things that I've heard from many, many soldiers is the rules of engagement make it difficult for them to do their job when they're under attack. That is that especially after General McCrystal took over, and wanted to make sure that we weren't creating more enemies than we were fighting through civilian casualties, the rules of engagement were, as troops came to understand them, changed. People were discouraged from using force as much as possible.

When you hear about this specific battle in the Ganjgal (ph) Valley, which is right near the border with Pakistan, right near Asadabad, in the eastern part of the country, you hear that people there who are on the ground and these Marines were part of an embedded tactical training team. They were basically training Afghan border troops. And they wanted to call in what's called "willie pete," white phosphorous, which burns. And they were told they could not because of the potential civilian casualties, even though many of the witnesses say that a lot of the civilians there were helping the enemy during this battle BALDWIN: And also, as you explain all of that, just the video that we saw in Barbara's piece, which makes this unique, the fact that there was this helmet cam on this pilot from this helicopter. And so we actually see, you know, Captain Swenson kissing his, you know, brother who had been shot in the throat. Kissing his forehead because he said he simply was trying to keep his spirits up. You've talked to these people, these recipients, and I feel like there is this, you know, modesty, right, that they say that they were just doing this because it's their job.

TAPPER: It's profoundly familial, the bonds that these men and women form with each other while in battle. They really do become like blood relatives and they are willing to lay down their lives, even if the person is not a close friend. We've heard this in different Medal of Honor stories. Even if it's just another soldier that they're not even that close with.

BALDWIN: Let's take a listen. Here we go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) our help (ph) in these days. More than two centuries you have blessed our nation, the dedicated and selfless soldiers in uniform stand ready to deploy and defend our nation's freedoms. As we honor Captain Will Swenson for his actions during the battle in Ganjgal (ph), we honor the sacred trust that he and his team embodied that day. We thank you for the last full measure of devotion given that day. As the Medal of Honor is draped around Captain Swenson, may the healing grace of hope and peace rest upon each of us. Let Captain Swenson's example rekindle in us a spirit of sacrifice and a steadfastness of purpose. On this occasion, renew our commitment to uphold the right to oppose the wrong and continue to work that has begun so long ago. This we ask and pray in your holy name, amen.

CROWD: Amen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat.

On behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House. Last month the United States Army released a remarkable piece of video. It's from the combat helmet cameras of a medevec helicopter crew in Afghanistan. And it's shaky and its grainy, but it takes us to the front lines that our troops face every single day. And it's useful to remember that there's still a whole lot of our troops in Afghanistan in harm's way.

In that video as the helicopter touches down by a remote village, you see out of a cloud of dust an American soldier. He's without his helmet, standing in the open, exposing himself to enemy fire, standing watch over a severely wounded soldier. He helps carry that wounded soldier to the helicopter and places him inside. And then amidst the whipping wind and the deafening roar of the helicopter blades, he does something unexpected. He leans in and kisses the wounded soldier on the head. A simple act of compassion and loyalty to a brother in arms. And as the door closes and the helicopter takes off, he turns and goes back the way he came, back into the heat of battle. And in our nation's history, we have presented our highest military declaration, the Medal of Honor, nearly 3,500 times for actions above and beyond the call of duty. But this may be the first time that we can actually bear witness to a small fraction of those actions for ourselves. And today we honor the American in that video, the soldier who went back in, Captain William Swenson.

Not far away that day was then Corporal Dakota Meyer, to whom we presented the Medal of Honor two years ago. Today is only the second time in nearly half a century that the Medal of Honor has been awarded to two survivors of the same battle. Dakota is not here today, but I wanted to welcome some of the soldiers and Marines who fought alongside both these men and the families of those who gave their lives that day.

I want to welcome all of our distinguished guests, including members of the Medal of Honor Society, whose ranks today grow by one more. Most of all, I want to welcome Will's wonderful parents, Julia and Carl (ph), and Will's girlfriend Kelsey (ph). I had a chance to visit with them. Both Carl and Julia are former college professors. So instead of a House full of G.I. Joes, Will grew up in Seattle surrounded by educational games. I'm told that even when Will was little, his mom was always a stickler for grammar, always making sure he said "to whom" instead of "to who," so I'm going to be very careful today.

I just had a chance to spend some time with them. And I have to say, Will is a pretty low-key guy. His idea of a good time isn't a big ceremony like this one. He'd rather be somewhere up in the mountains or on a trail surrounded by cedar trees instead of cameras.

But I think our nation needs this ceremony today. In moments like this, Americans like Will remind us of what our country can be at its best, a nation of citizens who look out for one another, who meet our obligations to one another, not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard. Maybe especially when it's hard.

And, Will, you're an example to everyone in this city, and to our whole country, of the professionalism and patriotism that we should strive for, whether we wear a uniform or not. Not just on particular occasions, but all the time.

You know, for those who aren't familiar with the story of the battle that led Will to be here today, I want to take you back to that September morning four years ago. It's around sunrise. A column of Afghan soldiers and their American advisers are winding their way up a narrow trail towards a village to meet with elders. But just as the first soldier reaches the outskirts of the village, all hell breaks loose. Almost instantly, four Americans, three Marines, one Navy, at the front of the column are surrounded. Will and the soldiers in the center of the column are pinned down. Rocket propelled grenades, mortar, machine gunfire, all of this is pouring in from three sides.

As he returns fire, Will calls for air support, but his initial requests are denied. Will and his team are too close to the village. And then Will learns that his noncommissioned officer, Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, has been shot in the neck. So Will breaks across 50 meters of open space, bullets biting all around, lying on his back, he presses a bandage to Kenneth's wounds with one hand and calls for a medevac with the other, trying to keep his buddy calm.

By this time, the enemy's gotten even closer, just 20 or 30 meters away. And over the radio they're demanding the Americans to surrender. So Will stops treating Kenneth long enough to respond by lobbing a grenade. And finally, after more than an hour and a half of fighting, air support arrives. Will directs them to nearby targets. Then it's time to move, so exposing himself again to enemy fire, Will helps carry Kenneth the length of more than two football fields down steep terraces to that helicopter. And then, in the moment captured by those cameras, will leans in to say good-bye.

But more Americans and more Afghans are still out there, so Will does something incredible. He jumps behind the wheel of an unarmored Ford Ranger pick-up truck. A Marine gets in the passenger seat and they drive that truck as a vehicle designed for the highway straight into the battle. Twice they pick up injured Afghan soldiers, bullets whizzing past them, slamming into the pick-up truck. Twice they bring them back. When the truck gives out, they grab a Humvee. The Marine by Will's side has no idea how they survive, but he says by that time it didn't matter, we weren't going to leave any soldiers behind.

Finally, a helicopter spots those four missing Americans, hours after they were trapped in the open ambush. So Will gets in another Humvee with a crew that includes Dakota Meyer, and together they drive past enemy fighters, up through the valley, exposed once more. When they reach the village, Will jumps out, drawing even more fire, dodging even more bullets, but they reach those Americans, lying where they fell. Will and the others carry them out one by one. They bring their fallen brothers home.

Now, scripture tells us the greatest among you shall be your servant. Captain Will Swenson was a leader on that September morning. But like all great leaders, he was also a servant to the men he commanded, to the more than dozen Afghans and Americans whose lives he saved, to the families of those who gave their last full measure of devotion on that faraway field. As one of his fellow soldiers later said, Will did things that nobody else would ever do, and he did it for his guys and for everybody on the ground to get them out.

And that's why after I called Will to tell him he'd be receiving this medal, one of the first things he did was to invite to this ceremony those who fought alongside him. and I'd like all of those who served with such valor alongside Will, both Army and Marines, who fought for each other, please stand and be recognized.

Thank you.

Will also reached out to the families of the four Americans who gave their lives that day. To them he wrote, and I'm quoting Will now, "we have never met, we have never spoken, but I would like to believe that I know something about each of you through the actions of your loved ones that day. They were part of a team, and you are now part of that team." So I would ask the members of this team, the families of First Lieutenant Michael Johnson (ph), Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Johnson (ph), Gunnery Sergeant Aaron Kenefick (ph), and Hospitalman Third Class James Lateen (ph), as well as the family of James Westbrook, to please stand.

Kenneth was the soldier Will delivered to the safety of that helicopter. And after being air lifted out, he made it to Walter Reed. He started rehab and spent time with his wife Charlene, who joins us here today. She still remembers the first time she spoke to Will when he called from Afghanistan to check in on Kenneth. Soon after that phone call, however, Kenneth took a turn for the worst. He succumbed to complications from his treatment. But I think it's fair to say that Charlene will always be grateful for the final days she was able to spend with her husband. And even now, a month rarely goes by when Will doesn't call or text, checking in with Charlene and her three boys. That's the kind of man he is, Charlene says about Will. You don't have to ask Will for help, he just knows when to be there for you.

So Will Swenson was there for his brothers. He was there for their families. As a nation, we thank God that patriots like him are there for us all.

So, Will, God bless you and all the men that you fought alongside and everything that you've done for us. God bless all our men and women in uniform, and God bless the United States of America.

And with that, I'd like my military to read the citation, please.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president of the United States of America, authorized by act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to Captain William D. Swenson, United States Army for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.

Captain William D. Swenson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as embedded adviser of the Afghan National Border Police, Task Force Phoenix, Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, in support of First Battalion 32nd Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade Combat Team, Tenth Mountain Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kunar province, Afghanistan, on September 8, 2009.

On that morning, more than 60 well-armed, well-positioned enemy fighters ambushed Captain Swenson's combat team as it moved on foot into the village of Ganjgal (ph) for a meeting with village elders. As the enemy unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade, mortar, and machine gunfire, Captain Swenson immediately returned fire and coordinated and directed the response of his Afghan border police while simultaneously calling in suppressive artillery fire and aviation support. After the enemy effectively flanked coalition forces, Captain Swenson repeatedly called for smoke to cover the withdrawal of the forward elements.

Surrounded on three sides by enemy forces, inflicting effective and accurate fire, Captain Swenson coordinated air assets, indirect fire support, and medical evacuation support to allow for the evacuation of the wounded. Captain Swenson ignored enemy radio transmissions demanding surrender and maneuvered uncovered to render medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier. Captain Swenson stopped administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at approaching enemy forces before assisting removing the soldier for air evacuation.

With complete disregard for his own safety, Captain Swenson unhesitatingly led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions to recover the wounded and search for four missing comrades. After using aviation support to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades, it became clear that ground recovery of the fallen was required due to heavy enemy fire on helicopter landing zones. Captain Swenson's team returned to the kill zone another time in a Humvee.

Captain Swenson voluntarily exited the vehicle, exposing himself to enemy fire, to locate and recover three fallen Marines and one fallen Navy corpsman. His exceptional leadership and stout resistance against the enemy during six hours of continuous fighting rallied his teammates and effectively disrupted the enemy's assault. Captain William D. Swenson's extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Task Force Phoenix, First Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade Combat Team, Tenth Mountain Division and the United States Army.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let us pray. God, we ask your blessing to rest upon us this day. We go forth in peace inspired by the actions of courageous and good people. May we follow the example set by Captain Swenson and his team, be a people of valor, ready when the cause for which we have given our vow confronts us. Grant us strength to live through troubled times. Fill us with grace equal to every need, and grant us the wisdom and the will to do justice, to love mercifully and walk humbly. This we ask and pray in your holy name. Amen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Well, let me say once again not only to Will, but all our men and women in uniform who have served us with such incredible courage and professionalism, that America's grateful for you. To the families of those we've lost, we will never forget. And Will, you are a remarkable role model for all of us. We're very grateful for your service. We are going to have a reception after this. I hear the food is pretty good around here.

So I hope all of you have a chance to stay and those of you who have a chance to say thank you to Will personally, obviously, that's very welcome. I'm going to be exiting with Will and Michelle first. We'll take a couple of pictures, but enjoy yourselves this afternoon. God bless America.