When President Obama awarded former Marine Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor last week, he described a terrifying ordeal that sounded like an action movie come true, complete with a buddy tandem as the heroes.
On Sept. 8, 2009, in a remote eastern Afghanistan province, Afghan soldiers, with their American trainers, were ambushed by 50 insurgents, Obama said. Meyer, then a corporal, and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, were listening to the attack on the radio in a support position.
“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,” Obama told about 200 guests in the East Room last Thursday. “They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right. So they drove straight into a killing zone.”
Obama went on to describe five successive missions by Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez that night, as they helped save the lives of 13 American and 23 Afghan troops. And then the president draped the Medal of Honor, the highest award granted by the U.S. military, around Meyer’s neck.
But Obama left part of the story unexplained: What happened to Rodriguez-Chavez, and why hasn’t he been awarded a Medal of Honor of his own?
Rodriguez-Chavez, and a third Marine, Capt. Ademola Fabayo, were awarded the Navy Cross in June by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during a ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The cross is the second-most prestigious valor award for a Navy serviceman or a Marine.
Those honors notwithstanding, the circumstances of the ambush and the counterattack in the Ganjgal valley of Sept. 8, 2009, remain shrouded in a degree of controversy. Five American troops and nine Afghan soldiers died in the ambush, along with many of the 50 insurgents who waged the assault.
The U.S. Army has conducted an investigation into the incident and publicly released a redacted version. A McClatchy reporter traveling with the patrol also published a first-hand account of the events.
According to the Marine Corps, the criteria for a Medal of Honor includes the following: The “individual’s service must clearly be rendered conspicuous above their comrades by an act so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes their gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery.”
A review of the award citations for Meyer, Rodriguez-Chavez and Fabayo, as well as a more complete narrative published by the Marines Corps of the events on Sept. 8, 2009, appears to shed light on why only Meyer was singled out for the highest honor on a night when all three men acted with immense bravery.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, Meyer made five trips into the “kill zone” that night to rescue his comrades. In his Navy Cross award citation, Rodriguez-Chavez is credited with going in four times.
On his final foray, Meyer was accompanied in a Humvee by Rodriguez-Chavez, Fabayo, then a lieutenant, and Army Capt. William Swenson, according to a story in the Marine Corps Times. They were searching for three Marines and a Navy corpsman who had become separated and were considered missing.
After helicopter support personnel were unable to land due to enemy fire, Meyer jumped out of the Humvee and tracked the trail on foot, locating the four dead servicemen at a trench where they had been spotted by the helicopter pilots.
“Meyer was in a riskier position now than he would have been if he had stayed close to the vehicles with other members of his group,” the Marine Corps said in a description of the events posted on its Web site. “He was out in front of the group, moving near buildings and terrain and drawing a high volume of enemy fire. Meyer, disregarding continuing small arms and RPG mortar machine gun fire, ran into the direction of the helicopter until he came upon the four lifeless bodies of the four missing Marine advisors.”
Meyer then helped evacuate the bodies of the fallen troops.
Maj. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, declined to comment on the specific 2009 incident. Generally speaking, Taylor said, valor awards are judged on the specific actions of each service member, which can vary even during a single mission.
“On any given day, four people standing very close together will take different actions and the merits of those actions, along with eyewitness accounts, is what the award is judged on,” Taylor said.
After a two-year delay, Swenson recently had his Medal of Honor nomination begin to move through the administrative process. One military source said Tuesday that Swenson’s paperwork had been “lost” until last week.
The Marine Corps Times reported that Swenson had been highly critical of the rules of engagement in Afghanistan and the lack of assistance from Army support personnel after he had radioed for help that night.
“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC [tactical operations center], why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” Swenson told investigators looking into the ambush, according to the Marine Corps Times. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo.”
In another interesting wrinkle, Obama said Meyer had disregarded orders from his superiors who had instructed him not to enter the killing zone to aid his ambushed colleagues.
A CNN report from June indicated that it was Fabayo, the commander of the mission, who had ordered Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez to stay put in their positions. Fabayo was with the patrol when it was ambushed, and he was pinned down for two hours before escaping with a team of Afghan fighters.
“Rodriguez-Chavez, driving an armored Humvee as part the column’s security element, called Fabayo and begged to drive up and help, Fabayo said no. He wanted no more Marines in the kill zone,” the CNN story reported. “Eventually, Rodriguez-Chavez did drive into the ambush.”
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