Glistening with sweat, decked out in his dress blues, Dakota Meyer looked uncomfortable early in the ceremony at which he received the Medal of Honor.
The lights were bright. Dozens of TV cameras were fixed on him. Millions across the country were watching.
Then President Obama described how Meyer, 23, was concerned about taking a call from the White House in August because he was at work on a construction site in Kentucky. The president said he waited until Meyer’s lunch break to tell the Marine he had been approved for the nation’s top valor award — and that Meyer immediately went back to work.
“Dakota is the kind of guy who gets the job done,” Obama said. “And I do appreciate, Dakota, you taking my call.”
At that, Meyer grinned and most of the 250-plus people in the East Room of the White House on Thursday laughed. It was a pleasant change of pace for Meyer, who has spent months in the spotlight answering questions about what he calls the worst day of his life: Sept. 8, 2009.
He is credited with braving a maelstrom of enemy fire multiple times that day in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, saving the lives of 36 coalition troops and refusing to give up until he found four fallen members of Embedded Training Team 2-8, his unit.
Meyer’s heroism that day began when he and a fellow Marine, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, refused orders and drove into the teeth of an ambush launched by at least 50 well-armed and deeply entrenched insurgent fighters in Ganjgal, a small village in Kunar province’s Sarkani district.
They rolled into the valley in a single Humvee, alone during the first three trips with Meyer manning the turret and killing some insurgents at point-blank range as they charged the vehicle. Multiple times, he left the Humvee to pull in Afghan troops, and Rodriguez-Chavez guided the vehicle to safety to drop them off.
Two more times, Meyer braved enemy fire in an attempt to save coalition forces and reach his pinned-down friends in the village. He found them shot to death, and under heavy fire carried their bodies and gear from the village with the assistance of Army Capt. Will Swenson, who also has been nominated for the Medal of Honor, according to an Army officer in Swenson’s brigade at the time.
Meyer didn’t speak during Thursday’s ceremony, but Obama outlined those actions in detail, and named the five service members who died because of that battle.
“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 — Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton. And a soldier wounded in that battle who never recovered — Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook.”
Meyer has used his new high profile in other ways this week to give back to his Corps and country. On Tuesday, he launched the Sergeant Dakota Meyer Scholarship Initiative, a push to raise $1 million with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation to help the children of wounded Marines go to college.
On Wednesday, Meyer was granted one personal request: to have a beer with the president at the White House. On a patio outside the Oval Office, they each had a White House Honey Blonde Ale. The beer is brewed at the White House, a spokesman for the president said. It includes honey from bees kept on site.
The families of the fallen weren’t at the White House for the ceremony, but Meyer asked them to participate in their own way by holding memorial services in their hometowns at the same time. From California to New York, they did just that, sharing in the moment as Obama praised his heroism and humility.
“Dakota, I know that you’ve grappled with the grief of that day, that you’ve said your efforts were somehow a failure because your teammates didn’t come home,” Obama said. “But as your commander in chief, and on behalf of everyone here today and all Americans, I want you to know that it’s quite the opposite. You did your duty, above and beyond, and you kept the highest traditions of the Marine Corps that you love.”
story by: Dan Lamothe
photo by: Lance Cpl. Daniel Wetzel