Marine Cpl. Receives Medal of Honor
President Barack Obama bestowed the medal on Meyer at a White House ceremony Thursday, making the soft-spoken 23-year-old former Marine (AP quote, I know you are never a “former” Marine) the first from his branch who is living to receive the honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Meyer, who left the military after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now back to pouring concrete at his construction job in a far more bucolic setting — the tiny community of Greensburg in central Kentucky. He acknowledges that he struggles with the honor, the national attention. Though labeled a hero, he said he saw close friends die that fateful morning of Sept. 8, 2009, as they were unexpectedly pinned down in Kunar Province, a hotbed of clashes with the Taliban.
“It’s hard, it’s … you know … getting recognized for the worst day of your life, so it’s… it’s a really tough thing,” Meyer said, struggling for words. Meyer insisted his fallen comrades also be remembered, so memorial services are being held in the hometowns of the slain soldiers that coincided with the White House ceremony Thursday.
The day those men died began like many others as Meyer took part in a security team supporting a patrol moving into a village in Afghanistan’s Ganjgal Valley. Meyer and the other Americans had gone to the area to train Afghan military members when, suddenly, the lights in the village went dark, and gunfire erupted. About 50 Taliban insurgents perched on mountainsides and taking cover 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 venture into combat to help extricate the team. Four times he was denied his request before Meyer and another Marine, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, jumped into an armored Humvee and headed into battle. For his valor, Rodriguez-Chavez, a 34-year-old who hailed originally from Acuna, Mexico, would be awarded the Navy Cross.
“They told him he couldn’t go in,” said Dwight Meyer, Dakota Meyer’s 81-year-old grandfather, a former Marine who served in the 1950s. “He told them, ‘The hell I’m not,’ and he went in. It’s a one-in-a-million thing” that he survived.
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. On one of the trips, shrapnel opened a gash in one of Meyer’s arms.
Meyer made a total of five trips into the kill zone, each time searching for the forward patrol with his Marine friends — including 1st Lt. Michael Johnson — whom Meyer had heard yelling on the radio for air support.
With Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez ready to test fate a fifth time in the kill zone, a UH-60 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, and he didn’t want to leave them there.
“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 safety of the Humvee and ran out on foot. “He just really took a chance,” Dwight Meyer said.
Moving under cover of nearby buildings to avoid heavy gunfire, he reached the bodies of 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. Meyer and two other soldiers dodged bullets and rocket-propelled grenades to pull the bodies out of a ditch where the men had taken cover but were killed.
Meyer said he’ll be humbled by the memory of his fallen comrades who will be honored as he received the award Thursday. And we are humbled to have had such a brave man serve our country.