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America's newest hero, Sgt. Dakota Meyer: How he rescued 36 guys under fire

September 16, 2011 |  7:14 am

Dakota Meyer in Afghanistan USMC

President Obama awards Medal of Honor to Sgt. Dakota Meyer, as provided by the White House

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Please be seated. Thank you, Chaplain Kibben. Good afternoon, everyone. And on behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House. 

It’s been said that “where there is a brave man, in the thickest of the fight, there is the post of honor.”  Today, we pay tribute to an American who placed himself in the thick of the fight -- again and again and again.  In so doing, he has earned our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. And we are extraordinarily proud of Sgt. Dakota Meyer.(Applause.)
    
Today is only the third time during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that a recipient of the Medal of Honor has been able to accept it in person.  And we are honored to be joined by one of the two other recipients -- Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who is here.  (Scroll to bottom for the story of Sgt. Petry and other Medal of Honor winners.)

I would point out something else -- of all the Medal of Honor recipients in recent decades, Dakota is also one of the youngest. He’s 23 years old. And he performed the extraordinary actions for which he is being recognized today when he was just 21 years old.

Despite all this, I have to say Dakota is one of the most down-to-earth guys that you will ever meet. In fact, when my staff first tried to arrange the phone call so I could tell him that I’d approved this medal, Dakota was at work, at his new civilian job, on a construction site. 

 

He felt he couldn’t take the call right then, because he said, “If I don’t work, I don’t....

 

...get paid.”  (Laughter.)  So we arranged to make sure he got the call during his lunch break. (Laughter.) I told him the news, and then he went right back to work. (Laughter.) That’s the kind of guy he is. He also asked to have a beer with me, which we were able to execute yesterday.

Dakota is the kind of guy who gets the job done. And I do appreciate, Dakota, you taking my call.  (Laughter.)  The Medal of Honor reflects the gratitude of the entire nation.

So we’re joined here by members of Congress, including somebody from your home state, the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell. We are joined here by leaders from....

Dakota Meyer receives the Medal of Honor 9-15-11

....across my administration, including Secretary of Veterans Affairs Ric Shinseki and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and leaders from across our Armed Forces, including the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos. 

We’re honored to welcome Dakota’s father, Mike, who’s here; his extraordinary grandparents; and more than 120 of Dakota’s family and friends, many from his home state of Kentucky. I want to welcome Dakota’s comrades from the Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, and we are humbled by the presence of the members of the Medal of Honor Society.

Dakota, I realize the past two years have not been easy for you, retelling the story of that day and standing here today. You’re a very modest young man. But, as you’ve said, you do it for a simple reason -- retelling the story -- because it helps you to honor those who didn’t come home, and to remind your fellow Americans that our men and women in uniform are over there fighting every single day. 

So that’s how we’ll do this today. It’s fitting that we do so this week, having just marked the 10th anniversary of the attacks that took our nation to war. Because in Sgt. Dakota Meyer, we see the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war. 

Let me tell the story. I want you to imagine it’s Sept. 8, 2009, just before dawn. A patrol of Afghan forces and their American trainers is on foot, making their way up a narrow valley, heading into a village to meet with elders.  And suddenly, all over the village, the lights go out. And that’s when it happens.

About a mile away, Dakota, who was then a corporal, and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez could hear the ambush over the radio.  It was as if the whole valley was exploding. Taliban fighters were unleashing a firestorm from the hills, from the stone houses, even from the local school.

And soon, the patrol was pinned down, taking ferocious fire from three sides. Men were being wounded and killed, and four Americans -- Dakota’s friends -- were surrounded. Four times, Dakota and Juan asked permission to go in; four times they were denied.  It was, they were told, too dangerous. But one of the teachers in his high school once said, “When you tell Dakota he can’t do something, he’s is going to do it.”  (Laughter.)  And as Dakota said of his trapped teammates, “Those were my brothers, and I couldn’t just sit back and watch.” 

The story of what Dakota did next will be told for generations. He told Juan they were going in. Juan jumped into a Humvee and took the wheel; Dakota climbed into the turret and manned the gun. They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right. So they drove straight into a killing zone, Dakota’s upper body and head exposed to a blizzard of fire from AK-47s and machine guns, from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. 

Coming upon wounded Afghan soldiers, Dakota jumped out and loaded each of the wounded into the Humvee, each time exposing himself to all that enemy fire. They turned around and drove those wounded back to safety. Those who were there called it the most intense combat they’d ever seen.  Dakota and Juan would have been forgiven for not going back in. But as Dakota says, you don’t leave anyone behind.

For a second time, they went back -- back into the inferno; Juan at the wheel, swerving to avoid the explosions all around them; Dakota up in the turret -- when one gun jammed, grabbing another, going through gun after gun. Again they came across wounded Afghans. Again Dakota jumped out, loaded them up and brought them back to safety.

For a third time, they went back -- insurgents running right up to the Humvee, Dakota fighting them off. Up ahead, a group of Americans, some wounded, were desperately trying to escape the bullets raining down. Juan wedged the Humvee right into the line of fire, using the vehicle as a shield. With Dakota on the guns, they helped those Americans back to safety as well.

For a fourth time, they went back. Dakota was now wounded in the arm. Their vehicle was riddled with bullets and shrapnel. Dakota later confessed, “I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was.”  But still they pushed on, finding the wounded, delivering them to safety.

And then, for a fifth time, they went back -- into the fury of that village, under fire that seemed to come from every window, every doorway, every alley. And when they finally got to those trapped Americans, Dakota jumped out. And he ran toward them. Drawing all those enemy guns on himself.  Bullets kicking up the dirt all arMedal of Honoround him. He kept going until he came upon those four Americans, lying where they fell, together as one team. 

  Dakota and the others who had joined him knelt down, picked up their comrades 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.”

Dakota says he’ll accept this medal in their name. 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 Third Class James Layton.  And a soldier wounded in that battle who never recovered -- Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook.  

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. But 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. You did your duty, above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps that you love.

Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today. Because of your courage, four fallen American heroes came home, and -- in the words of James Layton’s mom -- they could lay their sons to rest with dignity.  Because of your commitment -- in the thick of the fight, hour after hour -- a former Marine who read about your story said that you showed how “in the most desperate, final hours … our brothers and God will not forsake us.”  And because of your humble example, our kids -- especially back in Columbia, Ky., in small towns all across America -- they’ll know that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do great things as a citizen and as a member of the American family.

Therein lies the greatest lesson of that day in the valley, and the truth that our men and women in uniform live out every day. “I was part of something bigger,” Dakota has said, part of a team “that worked together, lifting each other up and working toward a common goal.  Every member of our team was as important as the other.” 

So in keeping with Dakota’s wishes for this day, I want to conclude by asking now-Gunnery Sgt. Rodriguez-Chavez and all those who served with Dakota -- the Marines, Army, Navy -- to stand and accept thanks of a grateful nation.(Applause.)

Every member of our team is as important as the other. That’s a lesson that we all have to remember -- as citizens, and as a nation -- as we meet the tests of our time, here at home and around the world. 

To our Marines, to all our men and women in uniform, to our fellow Americans, let us always be faithful. And as we prepare for the reading of the citation, let me say, God bless you, Dakota. God bless our Marines and all who serve. And God bless the United States of America. Semper Fi. (Applause.)

  MILITARY AIDE:  The President of the United States, in the name of the Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Cpl. Dakota L. Meyer, United States MariDakotaMeyerMedalHonorSmile9-15-11JoshuaRobtsBbergne Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, Regional Corps Advisory Command 3-7, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on 8 September 2009.

Cpl. Meyer maintained security at a patrol rally point, while other members of his team moved on foot with two platoons of Afghan National Army and border police into the village of Ganjgal for a pre-dawn meeting with village elders.

Moving into the village, the patrol was ambushed by more than 50 enemy fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, machine guns from four to five positions on the slopes above.  Hearing over the radio that four U.S. team members were cut off, Cpl. Meyer seized the initiative. 

With a fellow Marine driving, Cpl. Meyer took the exposed gunner’s position in a gun truck as they drove down the steeply terraced terrain in a daring attempt to disrupt the enemy attack and locate the trapped U.S. team. Disregarding intense enemy fire now concentrated on their lone vehicle, Cpl. Meyer killed a number of enemy fighters with the mounted machine guns and his rifle -- some at near point-blank range -- as he and his driver made three solo trips into the ambush area.

During the first two trips, he and his driver evacuated two dozen Afghan soldiers, many of whom were wounded. When one machine gun became inoperable, he directed the return to the rally point to switch to another gun truck for a third trip into the ambush area, where his accurate fire directly supported the remaining U.S. personnel and Afghan soldiers fighting their way out of the ambush.

Despite a shrapnel wound to his arm, Cpl. Meyer made two more trips into the ambush area in a third gun truck, accompanied by four other Afghan vehicles, to recover more wounded Afghan soldiers and search for the missing U.S. team members.

Still under heavy enemy fire, he dismounted the vehicle on the fifth trip and moved on foot to locate and recover the bodies of his team members. Cpl. Meyer’s daring initiative and bold fighting spirit throughout the six-hour battle significantly disrupted the enemy’s attack and inspired the members of the command force to fight on. His unwavering courage and steadfast devotion to his U.S. and Afghan comrades, in the face of almost certain death, reflect a great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

(The Medal is presented.)  (Applause.)

CHAPLAIN KIBBEN:  Let us close in prayer: God, may this ceremony serve as a reminder of the responsibility that comes with receiving the grace gift of freedom. And as we depart this hallowed hall and return to our daily lives, we pray that you would ennoble and enable us, that when called up we would recall the resolute fearlessness of Sgt. Dakota Meyer and all those who wear the stars of valor, and live up to our responsibilities to bring honor to You and to this country.

It is in Your holy name we pray.  Amen.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all for joining us here today. We are grateful for Dakota. We are grateful for all our men and women in uniform. And I hope that all of you have not only been inspired by this ceremony, but also will enjoy the hospitality of the White House. I hear the food is pretty good.  (Laughter.)  Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. (Applause.)     ####

 

ADDENDUM: Our colleagues Michael Muskal and Michael Memoli noted this in their news story:

Only 10 Medals of Honor have been issued in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- seven posthumously -- compared with 248 in Vietnam, 136 in Korea and 465 during World War II. About 3,400 have been granted since the Civil War.

The other living Medal of Honor recipients from the current wars are Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who rushed into enemy fire and pulled three wounded soldiers to safety in Afghanistan in 2007, and Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who lost his hand throwing an enemy grenade away from two fellow soldiers during a fight with insurgents in Afghanistan's Paktia province in May 2008.

RELATED:

The amazing story of First Sgt. Leroy Petry

The gallant story of Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta

Obama presents Medal of Honor to parents of Sgt. Jared Monti

Photos: Department of Defense (Marine Meyer in Afghanistan); Alex Wong / Getty Images (Meyer receives the Medal of Honor); Department of Defense; Joshua Roberts / Bloomberg (Meyer smiles at family and friends).

 

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