WASHINGTON (AP) - Defying orders and tempting fate, Marine
corporal Dakota Meyer charged five times in a Humvee into heavy
gunfire in the darkness of an Afghanistan valley to rescue comrades
under attack from Taliban insurgents.
On Thursday, Meyer was presented with the Medal of Honor, the
nation's highest military award, by President Barack Obama.
Meyer's heroics during the six-hour ambush and firefight saved
the lives of 36 people, both Americans and Afghans. He killed at
least eight Taliban insurgents. Firing from a gun turret on top of
the Humvee driven by a fellow Marine, he provided cover for his
team, allowing many to escape likely death.
He was defying orders from his commanders, who told him to stay
back. The kill zone, they said, was too dangerous. But the young
corporal, just 21 years old at the time, knew his friends were
trapped that early morning in September 2009.
"In Sgt. Dakota Meyer, we see the best of a generation that has
served with distinction through a decade of war," Obama said
during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Meyer, later promoted to sergeant and now out of the Marines, is
the third living recipient and the first Marine to be awarded the
Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The modest, soft-spoken 23-year-old now lives in his home state
of Kentucky, working construction in the tiny town of Greensburg.
Obama praised Meyer for his humility and work ethic. When the
White House tried to reach him in the middle of a workday to tell
him his medal had been approved, he worried about whether he could take a call while on the job. So the White House arranged for the president to call during Meyer's lunch break. With a smile, Obama
thanked him for taking the call.
On the eve of the Medal of Honor ceremony, Obama and Meyer met in person, chatting on a patio near the White House Rose Garden, over a beer.
Despite Meyer's heroics, four American soldiers died in the
ambush: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach;
Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; Corpsman James
Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., a
31-year-old gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga. A fifth man, Army
Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M., later died from
Meyer says he has struggled with the national attention, with
being recognized for the worst day of his life. He requested that
memorial services for those who died that day be held in their
hometowns at the same time he received the Medal of Honor.
The president assured Meyer that he had let no one down.
"Dakota, I know you've grappled with the grief of that day,
that you said your efforts were somehow a failure because your
teammates didn't come home," the president said. "But as your
commander in chief and on behalf of everyone here today and all
Americans, I want you to know it's quite the opposite."
For all the praise heaped upon Meyer, questions have also been
raised about whether the military could have prevented the deaths
of the five Americans. Two Army officers were reprimanded for being
"inadequate and ineffective" and for "contributing directly to
the loss of life" following an investigation into the day's
"You can't say this with any certainty, but the chances are, in
my opinion, that yes they would have been" still alive, said
retired Col. Richard Hooker, who led the investigation. Hooker
spoke during an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes."
Meyer was part of a security team supporting a patrol moving
into a village in the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009. Suddenly,
the lights in a nearby village went out and gunfire erupted. About
50 Taliban insurgents on mountainsides and in the village had
ambushed the patrol.
As the forward team took fire and called for air support that
wasn't coming, Meyer begged his command to let him head into the
incoming fire to help.
Four times he was denied before he and another Marine, Staff
Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, jumped into the Humvee and headed into the fray. For his valor, Rodriguez-Chavez, a 34-year-old who hailed originally from Acuna, Mexico, would be awarded the Navy Cross.
With Meyer manning the Humvee's gun turret, the two drew heavy
fire. But they began evacuating wounded Marines and American and
Afghan soldiers to a safe point. Meyer made five trips into the
During that fifth trip into the kill zone, a helicopter arrived
at last to provide overhead support. Troops aboard the chopper told
Meyer they had spotted what appeared to be four bodies. Meyer knew
those were his friends.
"It might sound crazy, but it was just, you don't really think
about it, you don't comprehend it, you don't really comprehend what
you did until looking back on it," Meyer said.
Wounded and tired, Meyer left the relative safety of the Humvee
and ran out on foot.
Ducking around buildings to avoid gunfire, he reached the bodies
of his fallen comrades.
Meyer and two other troops dodged bullets and rocket-propelled
grenades to pull the bodies out of a ditch where the men had died
while trying to take cover.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)