On Sept. 8, 2009, Dakota Meyer, then a 21-year-old Marine corporal, defied the orders of his superiors while on duty in a remote province in eastern Afghanistan, raced into a “killing zone” and rescued 36 U.S. and Afghan troops.
When President Obama recently called to tell Meyer he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor, Meyer didn’t take the call. Meyer, now 23, was working a new job in construction and asked the president to call him back another time.
“He told me, ‘If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,’ ” Obama recounted with a chuckle Thursday afternoon in the medal ceremony for Meyer in the gilded East Room of the White House.
“Dakota is the kind of guy who gets the job done,” Obama said.
Meyer, of Greensburg, Ky., became just the third service member to earn the award for service in the Afghanistan or Iraq wars, and he’s the first living Marine to have earned the honor since 1973.
In his buttoned-up dress uniform, Meyer, since promoted to sergeant, stood at attention as Obama hung the medal, on a light blue ribbon, around his neck. Meyer’s father, grandparents and 120 family and friends were on hand for the ceremony, as was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Meyer did not comment to the assembled media. But on his Twitter account, he wrote: “A sincere thank you to everyone who has reached out today. Semper Fi”
Making the event more touching was the appearance of New York Times photographer Joao Silva, who lost both legs after stepping on a land mine while on patrol with American troops in Afghanistan last year.
Silva, who underwent rehabilitation at Walter Reed Hospital and now walks on prosthetic legs and with a cane, attended the ceremony as an accredited journalist. Obama talked with him briefly before the ceremony, Silva said, and the journalist took photos throughout the event. (His photo was published Thursday on the New York Times’ Web site.)
It marked just the second time that Silva has taken professional photos since his injuries, the first coming at the closing ceremony for Walter Reed Hospital.
“He asked how I was doing, and I told him I had made improvements since the last time he saw me,” Silva said of his conversation with Obama. The journalist added that he still has six months to a year left of rehab.
Obama recounted the night that Meyer risked his life repeatedly to save his compatriots. Meyer was serving near a village in a Taliban-held area when the power in the town suddenly went out and the valley lit up in a hail of gunfire and mortar rounds from Taliban fighters hiding in the hills. A patrol of Afghan and U.S. forces was pinned down in the fire.
Meyer was about a mile away but could hear the attack on the radio. He repeatedly asked his superiors for approval to go to the aid of the unit but was repeatedly denied, Obama said.
The young corporal and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez Chavez jumped in a Humvee — Chavez at the wheel and Meyer in the gun turret — and headed into the “killing zone,” as Obama called it.
Coming across some wounded allied Afghan fighters, the pair brought them to safety and headed back in. In all, the duo entered the battle zone five times, rescuing 23 Afghans and 13 Americans. They also extracted the body of four Americans who had been killed in the fighting.
Meyer suffered shrapnel wounds to his arm, Obama said.
Obama noted that Meyer was being honored just days after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that prompted the United States to engage in the war.
The Obama administration had previously awarded the medal to two other Afghan war veterans. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who received the award Nov. 27, 2010, and Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who was awarded at a White House ceremony last month, are the only other living service members given the honor for actions in combat after Sept. 11, 2001.
Meyer is the second Marine to receive the medal for heroism in Iraq or Afghanistan. Cpl. Jason Dunham was awarded the medal posthumously for throwing his body on a grenade.
“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 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.”