Medal Of Honor Recipient Saved 36 Lives During Battle (WIDK)
Posted to WIDK by Bob Williams
GREENSBURG, Ky.(USA Today) – When Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer plunged into Afghanistan’s Ganjgal Valley, he was sure he wouldn’t come out alive.
“I don’t think there was ever a question in my mind if I was going to die,” Meyer said. “It was just when.”
Inside the narrow valley, Taliban insurgents were dug into the high ground and hidden inside a village, pouring down deadly fire at Afghan forces and their American advisers. Armed militants swarmed the low ground to try to finish off the troops.
Meyer’s team was pinned down near the village. He wasn’t going to wait and see whether they would get out. Defying orders to stay put, Meyer set himself in the turret of a Humvee and rode straight into the firefight, taking fire from all directions. He went in not once, but five times, trying to rescue his comrades.
During about six hours of chaotic fighting, he killed eight Taliban militants and provided cover for Afghan and U.S. servicemen to escape the ambush, according to a Marine Corps account of the events. Meyer saved the lives of 13 U.S. troops and 23 Afghan soldiers that day, Sept. 8, 2009.
Next week, President Obama will award him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest medal for bravery. During the ceremony Sept. 15, Meyer will become the third living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meyer, who joined the Marines almost on a lark, said in an interview with USA TODAY at his grandparents’ farm that what he did was an easy decision to make.
“My best friends were in there getting shot at,” he said.
Meyer said he knew he was taking a chance by defying orders, but he never doubted his decision. “I’d rather be sitting in jail right now for the rest of my life for something like this and those guys be alive than … questioning if I could have done something different,” he said.
As a youth, irrepressible and blunt
Greensburg is a small town in a “dry” county, where alcohol sales are forbidden. The rolling hills are dotted with small churches, cornfields and farms where cows and horses roam.
“We don’t really have people in a small community ever get a lot of honor,” said Mike Griffiths, Meyer’s high school football coach and a mentor.
In high school, Meyer was smart but also irrepressible and blunt. Teachers were impressed by his intelligence, but Meyer’s strong will and independence often would frustrate them, Griffiths said. After his parents divorced, Meyer was brought up by his father on a farm next to his grandparents’.
“He is going to size you up,” Griffiths said. “He’s going to know … how far he can push the envelope.”
When Meyer was in a required home economics class, he and a few friends told the teacher they were taking two months off from class to train for a bobsledding team. The teacher walked into the class to find Meyer and his friends lined up in chairs, pretending to be in a bobsled.
When the frustrated teacher said she was going to call the assistant principal, she was told not to bother; they knew where his office was.
“I definitely wasn’t the model student,” Meyer said.
His irreverence carried over to his farm work. Told to pick up some livestock for the farm, he once came back with an ostrich, said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who deployed with Meyer to Afghanistan.
Meyer had another side that few people saw, friends say.
During his senior year in high school, he approached Tana Rattliff, who taught a class of special-needs students, and asked whether he could work as a peer tutor in her class. Rattliff was wary. She didn’t know Meyer well, but she knew he was a popular jock, a running back and linebacker on the football team, and wondered about his motives.
“If you do this, you have to be a good role model,” she warned him.
One autistic teenager had spent most of his time in special-needs classes and was particularly withdrawn, she recalled. Meyer took him by the hand and showed him around the school.
Before long, the students in the class adored Meyer and would attend school football games to cheer him on, Rattliff said.
Meyer said he learned from the students, too.
“They don’t worry about the normal stuff that a high school student does,” Meyer said. “The last thing on their mind is a boyfriend or a girlfriend or what somebody said.
“They enjoy life to the fullest.”
It turned out to be “the best year of teaching I ever had,” Rattliff said. “We became like a family.”
That school year, Meyer encountered a Marine recruiter in the school lunchroom. Although his grandfather had been a Marine, Meyer said, he hadn’t considered the military as part of his future. He went up to the recruiter out of curiosity, and as they talked, Meyer told him about his plans to play college football somewhere.
The recruiter told him that was a good plan because “there’s no way you could be a Marine.”
Meyer walked away but quickly returned.
“You pick up your stuff right now,” Meyer told the recruiter. “Let’s go sign the papers.”
Meyer was 17. He needed a parent’s permission to join the military. When his father came home from work, he found Meyer and the recruiter waiting.
“When did you think about this?” his father, Mike, asked.
“About three hours ago,” Meyer said. He celebrated his 18th birthday at Parris Island, the Marines’ boot camp.
Meyer chose to go into the infantry after basic training and later trained as a sniper.
“I don’t want to join the Marine Corps and have a job that I could have as a civilian,” Meyer said.
He was about to return to Iraq for a second tour when an opportunity to go to Afghanistan arose. The action in Iraq was winding down.
He opted for Afghanistan.
‘He had a bad feeling’
Ganjgal Valley is a narrow gorge with a dirt road running through it and walls of rock-strewn peaks rising up on both sides. Villagers live in mud-walled homes that cling to the hillsides. The valley is surrounded by terraced fields.
Meyer was 21 in the fall of 2009, part of a small team of advisers attached to an Afghan army battalion operating in Kunar province, a remote and mountainous region that borders Pakistan.
The mission on Sept. 8 was straightforward.
The Afghan battalion would go to the village to meet with elders who had indicated they were willing to switch allegiance and turn on the Taliban, the Muslim clerical movement ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion after it refused to turn over Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks.
This was hopeful news for U.S. and Afghan forces. In 2009, the Taliban had free rein in parts of Kunar province, and Afghan commanders were eager to win over tribes and villages.
The plan was for the Afghan battalion to leave base before the sun came up and arrive at the village before first light. They would talk to the elders about renovating a mosque and see whether there were other projects the government could help with.
A U.S. quick-reaction force would be on standby, and an observation post would be established to keep an eye on the battalion as it moved down the valley toward the village. Snipers would be positioned to fire into the valley if needed.
Aircraft were not assigned directly to the mission, but teams were told attack planes or helicopters could respond quickly if needed.
“They said if we were to get into a firefight or an ambush, we’d get it (air support) right away, within 10 minutes,” Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Afghan commanders weren’t expecting a fight. It was a “key leader engagement” — not a major offensive. Intelligence suggested the battalion would receive only “light harassing fire” by up to 10 insurgents, according to a military investigation of the events that day. That was standard for Kunar province.
The Afghan troops and their U.S. advisers left Forward Operating Base Joyce around 2 a.m. According to the plan, Meyer was to stay with the vehicles near the mouth of the valley. The Afghan soldiers and their U.S. advisers would walk into the village from there.
Meyer didn’t like the idea of being separated from his team. “He wasn’t comfortable letting his team go in without him,” Rodriguez-Chavez said. “He had a bad feeling.”
During a briefing before the operation, Rodriguez-Chavez and 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Meyer’s team leader, recommended that Humvees go with the team. The vehicles were armed with heavy weapons and would be useful if the battalion were attacked, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
They were overruled. Commanders were uncertain what they would find on the road — which was little more than a dry streambed that got worse as it approached the village — and feared the vehicles would be vulnerable to roadside bombs, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Meyer said he waited anxiously by the vehicles as the column snaked its way toward the village. Soldiers in observation posts watched villagers preparing breakfast in the pre-dawn darkness. That wasn’t surprising. It was Ramadan, when Muslims fast throughout the day.
At 5:30 a.m., the lead of the column approached the village. The lights in the village blinked off.
All hell broke loose.
More than 50 insurgents fired from positions on mountains surrounding the valley and from within the village. It was perfect geography for an ambush: high ground with clear fields of fire. The troops were trapped.
Back at the vehicles, Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez heard the firing and could see into the valley. The volume of fire increased, and the radio traffic grew increasingly desperate.
The team was pinned down, and the only way out was to pound the militant positions with airstrikes or artillery.
Meyer’s team and others in the valley called for airstrikes. The requests were denied by staff officers in a command center who were concerned about civilian casualties and were unclear how fearsome the ambush was, according to a military investigation.
From the valley it appeared as if the entire village had joined the fight. Women were running between positions, resupplying the insurgents with ammunition. Some of the shooters were children.
Coalition command policy was to use airstrikes sparingly to avoid harming civilians, but troops in trouble were supposed to get the firepower they needed to protect themselves.
“If (you) don’t give me this air support, we are going to die out here,” Johnson yelled over the radio, according to the Marine Corps account of the battle.
The shooting was surprisingly accurate — not the typical harassment fire. These were hardened fighters in protected positions. Some wore helmets and body armor.
“We’re surrounded,” Lt. Johnson radioed. “They’re moving in on us.”
Over the radio, Taliban insurgents called on the Afghan soldiers to surrender. They refused.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez called four times to their headquarters, pleading for permission to drive into the valley to help Meyer’s team. Permission was denied. Senior advisers worried that vehicles driving into the valley would add to the chaos, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez looked at each other.
“We have to get in there,” Meyer told Rodriguez-Chavez.
Meyer recalled, “I couldn’t just sit back and watch.”
Rodriguez-Chavez jumped behind the wheel of a Humvee, and Meyer climbed into the turret, manning a grenade launcher. They headed down the valley and straight into the fight.
Bullets pinged off the turret; mortar shells landed around them, and rocket-propelled grenades streaked past.
Meyer fired furiously in all directions as the Humvee bounced along the rutted dirt road.
They came upon Afghan soldiers, some wounded, staggering out of the valley. Meyer got out and put five of them in the vehicle. Others were cut down as they ran for the Humvee. The Marines drove back to a safe spot, let their passengers out and headed back in.
An Afghan senior non-commissioned officer warned them that going back would be suicide, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez, then a staff sergeant, returned to the valley repeatedly, firing at insurgents, retrieving wounded and pulling out bodies. Rodriguez-Chavez would barely slow the vehicle, and Meyer would jump out to rescue survivors.
At one point, Meyer dropped from the turret, falling into the vehicle. Rodriguez-Chavez assumed he was dead.
“I’m OK, I’m OK,” Meyer yelled and got back behind the gun, blood gushing from his right arm as he resumed firing.
His weapon jammed, so the two Marines went back to get another Humvee, this one with a .50-caliber machine gun. Rodriguez-Chavez warned that the vehicle might get stuck on the barely passable dirt track as they drove deeper into the valley.
“I guess we’ll die with them,” Meyer replied.
Back in the valley, an insurgent got within a couple of feet of the driver’s side of the Humvee, startling Rodriquez-Chavez. Meyer aimed his M-4 rifle and shot the insurgent in the head.
After four trips, Meyer had not found his team. Together with Marine 1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo and Army Capt. William Swenson, Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez headed back into the valley a fifth time. At that point, they were an easy and expected target. It was as though every gun in the valley was turned on the vulnerable Humvee.
By this time, helicopters were buzzing the area, helping Meyer search for the missing team.
The helicopter crew saw what appeared to be four bodies just west of the village and radioed to the men on the ground searching. The helicopter couldn’t land, so its crew dropped a smoke grenade marking the position.
Meyer bolted from the Humvee and ran toward the smoke. Insurgents trained their weapons on him. Rodriguez-Chavez, still behind the wheel, thought it would be the last time he saw Meyer.
Ten minutes later, Meyer was back.
“They’re all dead,” Meyer told Rodriguez-Chavez. “Every single one of them.”
The team — Marines 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; and Navy Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22 — appeared to have been killed by insurgents who had sneaked up on them, according to the military investigation, the results of which were released by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The men were in a ditch where they had sought cover. Kenefick was clutching a GPS. Layton had been treating his lieutenant, who had a shoulder wound. Gunnery Sgt. Johnson had been keeping an eye out for the enemy.
It appeared they had spent all or most of their ammunition trying to defend themselves, given they were found with empty magazines. Their bodies had been stripped of their weapons and radios, according to the investigation.
Meyer carried the bodies out of the valley.
Two Army officers who worked in the combat operations center were reprimanded later for not taking immediate action to provide the teams with air support, according to Jones’ office. The report found an atmosphere of complacency in the combat operations center.
‘He doesn’t see himself as a hero’
Rodriguez-Chavez, 34, now a gunnery sergeant, and Fabayo, now a captain, were awarded Navy Crosses, the nation’s second-highest medal for valor.
Meyer, who later was promoted to sergeant, has left active duty and returned to Kentucky. He works as a concrete contractor with a cousin.
Meyer is not sure about his future. At various times, he considered a career in the Marines, but eventually he decided to leave active duty.
“I just thought that chapter of my life is over with,” Meyer said.
Except for a final page, when he will be drawn into the spotlight next week and President Obama will place the Medal of Honor around his neck to mark a day that still fills Meyer with remorse.
“He doesn’t see himself as a hero,” Griffiths said. “He felt like he had let his team down.”
Meyer appears to be uncomfortable with interviews and the publicity, but he says he endures them to honor the men killed in Ganjgal Valley and the troops still fighting in Afghanistan.
“It’s kind of frustrating because everyone wants to get an interview about the worst day of your life,” Meyer said. “At the end of the day, I do it because I think it needs to be told.”