President Obama applauds Dakota Meyer after awarding him the Medal of Honor.… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — The desperate call crackled over the radio in predawn darkness: A small team of American and Afghan troops was pinned down in a remote village under withering fire from three sides. A young lieutenant was begging for artillery or air support. Without it, he yelled, "we are going to die out here."
Can't be done, came the reply. It might kill civilians.
Less than a mile away, Marine Cpl. Dakota L. Meyer heard the radio exchange in agony. His buddies were dying, yet Meyer was under orders to stay where he was. Four times he requested permission to go to their aid, and four times he was refused.
After two hours, Meyer decided to defy his superiors. The powerfully built 21-year-old with a soft Kentucky drawl climbed into the turret of a gun truck mounted with a .50-caliber machine gun and, with another Marine driving, raced toward the battle.
On Thursday, Meyer was at the White House to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, for saving the lives of 36 combatants — 13 Americans and 23 Afghans — and personally killing at least eight Taliban fighters that day, Sept. 8, 2009. He is the first living Marine to receive the award since the Vietnam War.
Meyer, now 23, stood at attention in dress uniform as President Obama recounted what happened in the village of Ganjigal in Afghanistan's Kunar province.
"He drove straight into the line of fire with his head and upper body exposed," Obama said, describing how Meyer and the other Marine went toward the sound of the guns. "They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right."
As Obama prepared to fasten the medal around his neck, Meyer stared toward the ceiling at the back of the room, as if recalling the events of two years ago, a day Meyer calls the worst of his life.
"I'd rather have all my guys here now than receive the medal," Meyer, now a construction worker back home in Kentucky, told CNN. He wears the names of four fallen comrades he could not save on his wrist, engraved on a silver bracelet.
Obama said Meyer had initially refused to take his call about the award because he was working, saying, "If I don't work, I don't get paid." But at Meyer's request, the president shared a beer with the former Marine on Wednesday evening outside the Oval Office.
Trained as a sniper, Meyer volunteered to go to Afghanistan in 2009 because he wanted to see action. His unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment based in Hawaii, was deploying to Iraq, but Meyer had already done a tour there two years earlier and found it too quiet for his tastes. In Afghanistan, he would be part of a sniper team assigned to a unit training Afghan forces in Kunar province, a remote and rugged area near the Pakistan border.
"The main reason I went is because I wanted to fight," he later told the Marine Corps Times.
He'd joined the service to prove a point. In 2006, he'd told a Marine recruiter that he hoped to play college football. "Yeah, that's what I would do, because there's no way you could be a Marine," the recruiter responded, according to the Associated Press. Meyer walked away — but returned five minutes later to enlist.
On the day of the ambush, four Marines from a training team accompanied two platoons of Afghan army soldiers and border police to Ganjigal for what they thought was a meeting with village elders about helping to rebuild a mosque.
But as they entered the village near sunrise, all the lights went out and gunfire erupted as 50 insurgents in houses and in the hills above opened fire.
Once Meyer and the other Marine decided to disobey orders to stay away, it took nearly 10 minutes for the gun truck driver, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, to navigate down a steep, dry riverbed to the village of stone and mud houses at the far end of a valley. They had driven straight into the "kill zone," according to a Pentagon account of their actions. Bullets were bouncing off the vehicle.
Seeing Afghan soldiers lying on the ground, Meyer jumped out and began carrying the wounded to the vehicle, gunfire raging around him, the account said. After Meyer had loaded five men, Rodriguez-Chavez turned the Humvee around and drove out of the village to a casualty collection point, where the wounded could be picked up by a medevac helicopter.
They switched to an undamaged Humvee and returned to the village. Maneuvering in the riverbed, Rodriguez-Chavez called out that they might get stuck. "I guess we'll die with them," Meyer called back from the turret, according to the Pentagon account.
Many of the Afghan soldiers were wounded, allowing the attackers to concentrate their fire on the vehicle carrying Meyer. On his third trip back to the village, he was wounded in the arm by a rocket-propelled grenade.