Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer was the third recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He was the third living recipient; seven other service members received the honor posthumously. This version has been corrected.
On Sept. 8, 2009, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, then a 21-year-old corporal, defied the orders of his superiors while on duty in a remote province in eastern Afghanistan, raced into a “killing zone” and helped rescue 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 at 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 Kentucky, became just the third living 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 stood at attention as Obama hung the light blue ribbon holding the medal around his neck. Meyer’s father, grandparents and 120 family members and friends were on hand, as was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), first lady Michelle Obama, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Marine Corps Commandant James F. Amos. Eight other former medal recipients were seated in the front row.
Meyer did not comment to reporters, but on his Twitter account, he wrote: “A sincere thank you to everyone who has reached out today. Semper Fi.”
Obama recounted the night Meyer repeatedly risked his life to save his compatriots. Meyer was serving near a Taliban-held area around the village of Ganjgal 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.
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 denied, Obama said.
The young corporal refused to sit out the battle. He and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez jumped in a Humvee — Chavez at the wheel and Meyer in the gun mount — and headed into the “killing zone,” as Obama called it.
Coming across some wounded Afghan allied 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 bodies of four Americans who had been killed in the fighting.
Meyer suffered shrapnel wounds to his arm, Obama said.
The Obama administration has previously awarded the Medal of Honor to two other Afghan war veterans. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, who received the award on Nov. 27, 2010, and Sgt. 1st Class Leroy A. Petry, who was honored at a White House ceremony last month.
“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 . . . I want you to know it’s quite the opposite. You did your duty, above and beyond.”
Meyer made up for initially not taking the president’s call: He asked to have a beer with Obama, a request the president accommodated on the patio outside the Oval Office on Wednesday.
Joao Silva, a New York Times photographer who underwent rehabilitation at Walter Reed Hospital after he lost both of his legs to a land mine while on assignment in Afghanistan, attended the ceremony as an accredited journalist. Silva, who now walks on prosthetic legs and uses a cane, said he talked briefly with Obama before the ceremony and took photos throughout the event.