Sgt. (then Cpl.) Dakota Meyer while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Ganjgal Village, Kunar province, Afghanistan. Meyer will be receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, from President Barack Obama in Washington, Sept. 15, making him the first living Marine recipient since the Vietnam War. Meyer was assigned to Embedded Training Team 2-8 advising the Afghan National Army in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. He will be awarded for heroic actions in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, Sept. 8, 2009.
Story by Cpl. Reece Lodder
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - Removed from an ambushed platoon of Marines and soldiers in a remote Afghan village on Sept. 8, 2009, his reality viciously shaken by an onslaught of enemy fighters, Cpl. Dakota Meyer simply reacted as he knew best — tackling what he called “extraordinary circumstances” by “doing the right thing … whatever it takes.”
Nearly two years later, the White House announced Aug. 12, 2011, the 23-year-old Marine scout sniper from Columbia, Ky., who has since left the Marine Corps, will become the first living Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor in 38 years. Retired Sgt. Maj. Allan Kellogg, Jr. received the medal in 1973 for gallantry in Vietnam three years earlier.
Meyer is the second Marine to receive the medal for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Cpl. Jason Dunham was awarded the medal posthumously for covering a grenade with his body to save two Marines in Iraq in 2004. President Barack Obama will present the award to Meyer at the White House, Sept. 15.
“The award honors the men who gave their lives that day, and the men who were in that fight,” Meyer said. “I didn’t do anything more than any other Marine would. I was put in an extraordinary circumstance, and I just did my job.”
Though bleeding from shrapnel wounds in his right arm, Meyer, aided by fellow Marines and Army advisors from Embedded Training Team 2-8, braved a vicious hail of enemy machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire in the village of Ganjgal to help rescue and evacuate more than 15 wounded Afghan soldiers, and recover the bodies of four fallen fighters — 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgts. Aaron Kenefick and Edwin Johnson Jr., and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class James Layton.
ETT advisor Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, 2009, from wounds sustained in the firefight.
Meyer charged through the battle zone five times to recover the dead Marines and injured Afghan soldiers, risking his life even when a medical evacuation helicopter wouldn’t land because of the blazing gunfire.
“There’s not a day — not a second that goes by where I don’t think about what happened that day,” Meyer said. “I didn’t just lose four Marines that day; I lost four brothers.”
Author Bing West, a retired Marine infantry officer and combat veteran of Vietnam, detailed Meyer’s actions in the battle in “The Wrong War,” and praised Meyer for taking command of the battle as a corporal — the most junior advisor in this firefight.
West said Meyer should have been killed, but he dominated the battlefield by fearlessly exposing himself to danger and pumping rifle and machine gun rounds into the enemy fighters.
“When you leave the perimeter, you don’t know what’s going to happen, regardless of what war you’re fighting in,” Kellogg, who lives in Kailua, Hawaii, said. “Once you get to a point where you make the decision — ‘I’m probably going to die, so let the party begin’ — once you say in your mind you aren’t getting out of there, you fight harder and harder.”
Beginning his career with the same regiment from which Kellogg retired in 1990, Meyer deployed with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007, and earned a meritorious promotion to corporal in late 2008 after returning from the deployment.
Before leaving for Iraq, Meyer completed the Marine Corps’ 10-week Scout Sniper Basic Course, and committed himself to preparing himself and his snipers for combat. They attended lifesaving classes taught by Navy corpsmen and honed their skills with myriad weapons systems, such as light machine guns. Meyer also spent time in his battalion’s communications section learning how to call for mortar and artillery fire.
“I devoted my whole life to making the best snipers in the Marine Corps,” Meyer said. “They’re a direct reflection of your leadership. If you fail them in training, it could get them killed on the battlefield.”
In February 2009, Meyer volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan’s dangerous Kunar province and mentor Afghan soldiers as part of an embedded training team, the type of role usually filled by U.S. Special Forces.
“A Marine who seeks the challenge of joining his unit’s scout sniper platoon has to have a lot of drive and determination,” said Col. Nathan Nastase, commanding officer of 3rd Marine Regiment and formerly Meyer’s battalion commander at 3/3. “Being assigned to the ETT was a huge vote of confidence in his abilities.”
Meyer deployed to Afghanistan on the ETT in July 2009.
“Our mission was to help prepare the Afghans to take over their own country and provide security for themselves,” Meyer said. “ETTs make a huge impact on the outcome of the war.”
In Kunar province, Meyer and another ETT advisor would lead squads of 15 Afghan soldiers on patrols. Since he could speak Pashto, the local language, so well, Meyer often separated from the element with his Afghan trainees.
When his patrol fought to rescue another from an ambush Sept. 8, 2009, Meyer’s focus on advising gave way to surviving, and on what he had to do to keep himself and his men alive.
“I lost a lot of Afghans that day,” Meyer said. “And I’ll tell you right now — they were just as close to me as those Marines were. At the end of the day, I don’t care if they’re Afghans, Iraqis, Marines or Army; it didn’t matter. They’re in the same shit you are, and they want to go home and see their family just as bad as you do.”
Thrown into unimaginable circumstances, Meyer said the Afghan soldiers and his sniper training “saved my life” during the battle.
Jacody Downey is a close friend of Meyer’s from Kentucky. He’s seen his friend grow from a fun-loving “jokester” in high school to a driven Marine who deeply respected both elders and subordinates.
“Dakota has always cared more about others than he does himself,” Downey said. “Even if he’s not with his Marines now, he’s still constantly thinking about them, worrying about them and calling to check on them. He still considers them brothers.”
Cpl. David Hawkins grew as a Marine under Meyer’s leadership in 3/3’s Scout Sniper Platoon.
“Meyer was an ideal leader,” Hawkins, from Parker, Colo., said. “He knew everything about the Marines underneath him — how they’d respond to every situation, not only on a Marine Corps level but also on a personal level.”
Hawkins said he was deeply humbled by Meyer’s concern as a friend, especially after being injured in Afghanistan last year. Hawkins was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan Sept. 24, 2010. Four days later, he lay static in a stark hospital room, riddled with shrapnel. After groggily emerging from anesthesia into a blurry reality, Hawkins’ phone rang — the first call from a friend. Without fail, Meyer’s jovial drawl broke through the speaker.
“In the Marine Corps, you always hear that if something’s broke, you’ve got to work to fix it, but you never really see the Marine who does it,” Hawkins said. “Meyer is that Marine. If he had something to say, he’d say it, and he wasn’t really afraid of repercussions for what he said. If it needed to be changed, he changed it.”
Hearing his friend would receive the Medal of Honor didn’t surprise Hawkins. In light of the “character” and “country boy” Hawkins knows, Meyer’s actions were simply the manifestation of how he lived and led.
“Meyer was destined for the Medal of Honor,” Hawkins said. “If you got to work with him, you’d see it.”
Meyer completed his tour on active duty last June. He went home to Kentucky, where he’s found purpose working with his hands in a family business.
“Pouring concrete is kind of like the Marine Corps,” Meyer said. “When you wake up in the morning, you’ve got a job … like a mission. There’s no set standard on how to do things, but you just have to go out there, make decisions and get it done — and that’s like the challenge of the Marine Corps. Once you’re satisfied with what you’ve done, you stop getting better.”
Meyer is the 86th living Medal of Honor recipient, and he joins a small, elite group of heroes, a reality that will often require him to conjure up haunting reminders of the battles he has fought, the friends he has lost and the painful regret he bears.
“I’m not a hero, by any means — I’m a Marine, that’s what I am,” he said. “The heroes are the men and women still serving, and the guys who gave their lives for their country. At the end of the day, I went in there to do the right thing … and it all boils down to doing the right thing … whatever it takes. All those things we learn stick in your head, and when you live by it, that’s the Marine way.”
Though Meyer will receive the Medal of Honor for what he did in Ganjgal, he insists he will wear the five-pointed medallion and blue silk ribbon to honor his fallen brothers, their families and his fellow Marines.
“Being a Marine is a way of life,” Meyer said. “It isn’t just a word, and it’s not just about the uniform — it’s about brotherhood. Brotherhood means that when you turn around, they’re there, through thick and thin. If you can’t take care of your brothers, what can you do in life?”