President Obama presented former Marine Dakota Meyer with the Medal of Honor at the White House today, making Meyer the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The former Marine sergeant, who shared a beer with the president at the White House Wednesday, insists he is not a hero for repeatedly rushing into heavy enemy fire in an attempt to rescue four missing U.S. servicemembers pinned down in an intense hours-long ambush in eastern Afghanistan. Fighting through a piece of shrapnel that had injured his arm, Meyer later reached the four only to find that they had died in the fighting.
At today’s ceremony President Obama called it “fitting” that the ceremony should take place the same week as the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led to the war in Afghanistan.
Obama described the 23 year old Meyer as representing “the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war.”
“You did your duty above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps you love,” said Obama.
Obama called Meyer “one of the most down to earth guys that you will ever meet”. He noted that when the White House contacted him to arrange the President’s phone call to inform him he was to receive the award he asked that it be scheduled for his lunch hour from his construction job because he said, “if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.”
“I do appreciate, Dakota, you taking my call,” joked President Obama.
Meyer becomes the tenth recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor in those conflicts; all but two have been presented posthumously. Army soldiers Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta and Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry are the only other living recipients of the award.
On September 8, 2009, Meyer was one of 13 American military trainers embedded with a unit of 80 Afghan soldiers headed for a routine meeting with local elders in the village of Ganjgal, located in a valley along the border with Pakistan.
Four trainers at the front of the U.S.-Afghan force were immediately trapped by the heavy enemy fire believed to be coming from as many as 150 Taliban fighters.
Positioned in a rear position when the ambush began, Meyer and other members of his unit disobeyed orders to remain in place and used a Humvee to rush into the kill zone to try and rescue the four trapped at the head of their column.
Manning the the Humvee’s turret gun killed at least eight insurgents Meyer rescued 36 Afghan and American troops in his first four attempts to reach the four trapped trainers. He and his team members finally broke through to their position on the fifth attempt and moved on foot through a hail of gunfire only to find they had been killed in the fighting. Meyer then retrieved their remains.
Killed in the fighting were Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, as well as eight Afghan soldiers and an interpreter. Army Sgt 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook died a month later from wounds he had receieved in the battle.
In a measure of the heroism displayed by U.S. forces that day, two of Meyer’s fellow Marines, Capt. Ademola Fabayo and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, have each received the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest award for valor.
In an interview with ABC’s Bob Woodruff airing tonight on ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer,” Meyer says that if he was faced with the same situation again, “I would do it a hundred times” though he would change only one thing: ”I wish I could have kept them alive.”
He insists he is not a hero, but was only doing “what Marines do…I’m the furthest thing from a hero,” he says, “if this is what it feels like to be a hero you can have it.” He adds, “What gives me the right to be standing here today and not their kids? I feel like I failed them and I failed their families.”
Meyer wonders if the outcome might have been different if ”I had just done it on the first time on my instinct, maybe I could of got in there, made a difference, but like I said, you can ‘what if it’ to the max.”
He says he wasn’t counting how many lives he saved that day in Ganjgal. “I couldn’t tell you,” he says. “I see numbers come out all the time, there, three or four sets of numbers , but I don’t think numbers really matter.”
Meyer says that when he and Rodriguez-Chavez went into the valley that day, “I wasn’t really thinking I could die…I can’t speak for him, but I know, I never thought I was going to come out.”
A major motivator for his repeated attempts that day was an early radio transmission from the four that led him to believe they were still alive pinned down in a house “waiting for us to get them out.”
“The only thing I was focused on was getting those guys out of there,” says Meyer.
But when he reached them, “I knew they were dead, but you just want to wish there is something, something still going that you can hopefully try to at least save one of them.”
Meyer wears bracelets with the names of the four Americans killed in Ganjgal that day and feels some guilt that he survived the battle. “I guess what’s stuck in my mind is you either get guys out alive or you die trying, if you didn’t die trying, you didn’t try hard enough.”
Now living on his grandparents’ farm in rural Kentucky, Meyer says that he would return to active duty “in a heartbeat” if he could be promised a return to combat “fighting with Marines.”
Meyer says that he wants the award, but that he’s not receiving the medal just for himself, but on behalf of all Marines.
There is a dark side to the battle at Ganjgal as two Army officers later received reprimands for being “inadequate and ineffective” in not responding to requests from team members for additional artillery and air support during the battle.