“I didn’t think I was going to die, I knew I was.”
-Marine Corps Sgt. Dakota L. Meyer
Fortunately for us, we have a living hero to receive the Medal of Honor and not a dead one.
NYTimes account of the September 8, 2009 ambush in eastern Afghanistan:
Mr. Meyer, 23, now a sergeant in the inactive reserve, was an infantry corporal on Sept. 8, 2009, when an Afghan and American column headed before dawn toward the village of Ganjigal in Kunar Province.
The men in column — a mix of Afghan soldiers, border police officers and American trainers — were to meet with local elders. But they had been betrayed and walked into an ambush.
Corporal Meyer and another Marine had been assigned to secure a flank, and as Taliban gunfire began and the rest of his team was trapped, he was several hundred yards away.
Corporal Meyer listened on the radio as the rest of his Marine training team tried calling for help, and as Capt. Will Swenson of the Army, who worked with the border police and was also trapped, shouted into his radio for artillery support to suppress the Taliban fighters.
Officers at the nearby Army headquarters denied the request for artillery support, leaving the men, many of them wounded, to fight on their own until helicopter gunships arrived. (Investigations later suggested the Army officers decided that because the trapped troops were unaware of the precise locations of all of the other troops on the operation, artillery fire might have endangered them and was best withheld.)
Corporal Meyer asked permission several times to go into the ravine and to fight. He was told to remain in place, but decided to rush to the village nonetheless.
In the course of six hours, survivors said, Corporal Meyer and his driver, Staff Sgt. Juan J. Rodriguez-Chavez, led five fights into the ravine toward Ganjigal. Four times they helped recover wounded men, first Afghans who were pinned down and later Americans similarly trapped.
After the corporal freed Captain Swenson, the captain joined him in the fighting while an Army platoon nearby declined to help. On the last trip they recovered the remains of three Marines and a Navy corpsman. By then, according to the Marine Corps’ account of the fight, Corporal Meyer had killed eight Taliban fighters and stood up to several dozen more. (A fifth American later died of wounds suffered in the ravine.)
Two years on, the ambush in Ganjigal has been examined, reexamined and presented in many different ways, often as an institutional failure and an example of the limits and dangers of the counterinsurgency theory that was pressed upon the troops by Gen. David H. Petraeus and the Pentagon. The betrayal by the villagers, the confused lines of command, the withheld artillery fire, the inaction of an Army platoon that might have helped the trapped men — have all been documented.
In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Obama did not mention the local treachery or the lapses of officers who might have helped that day. Instead, he dwelled on Mr. Meyer, who is described as a remarkable selfless example of a citizen at his best.
“Dakota later confessed,” the president said, of the fighting in Ganjigal, “I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was.”
Meyer and others who had joined him picked up the fallen Marines and, “through all those bullets, all the smoke, all the chaos, carried them out one by one – because as Dakota says, that’s what you do for a brother,” the commander in chief said.
“Dakota says he’ll accept this medal in their name,” the president said. “So today, we remember the husband who loved the outdoors, Lt. Michael Johnson; the husband and father they called ‘Gunny J,’ Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson; the determined Marine who fought to get on that team, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick; the medic who gave his life tending to his teammates, Hospitalman 3rd Class James Layton; and a soldier wounded in that battle who was never recovered: Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook.”
Obama said while he knows Meyer has thought of himself as a failure because some of his teammates didn’t come home, “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.”
“Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today,” the president said. “Because of your courage, four fallen American heroes came home, and in the words of James Layton’s mom, [their families] could lay their sons to rest with dignity.”
Meyer’s father, Mike, grandparents, and more than a hundred friends and family members attended today’s ceremony.
Because of Meyer’s humble example, children all across America will know that “no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do great things as a citizen and a member of the American family,” the president said.
When President Obama recently called to tell Meyer he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor, Meyer didn’t take the call. Meyer, now 23, was working a new job in construction and asked the president to call him back another time.
“He told me, ‘If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,’ ” Obama recounted with a chuckle Thursday afternoon at the medal ceremony for Meyer in the gilded East Room of the White House.
“Dakota is the kind of guy who gets the job done,” Obama said.
Meyer, of Kentucky, became just the third service member to earn the award for service in the Afghanistan or Iraq wars, and he’s the first living Marine to have earned the honor since 1973.
The Obama administration has previously awarded the Medal of Honor to two other Afghan war veterans. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, who received the award on Nov. 27, 2010, and Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry, who was honored at a White House ceremony last month.