WASHINGTON — In numerous interviews, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer has said he was conflicted about receiving the nation’s highest military honor because he was unable to save the lives of four fellow troops during a September 2009 firefight in Afghanistan.
But on Thursday, during the formal presentation of the medal to the 23-year-old former Marine, President Barack Obama said that selflessness is precisely why Meyer deserves the honor.
“I know you’ve grappled with grief from that day, and said your efforts were somehow a failure because your teammates didn’t come home,” he told Meyer before a crowded White House audience. “But I want you to know it was quite the opposite.
“Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today. Because of your courage, four fallen American heroes came home. … And because of your humble example, our kids all know that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do great things.”
Meyer’s honor came for his actions in the controversial battle of Ganjgal, which claimed the lives of five U.S. servicemembers, including one who died of his wounds later, and nine Afghan allies. Three Army officers were later disciplined for not providing air support and backup to troops caught in the ambush, a detail glossed over in the White House ceremony.
Despite being ordered not to endanger his own life to try and save his fellow troops, Meyer fought down a mountainside to rescue wounded troops and recover the bodies of those already killed. Marine Corps officials said without Meyer’s willingness to risk his own life, many more troops would have died that day.
Meyer, serving with an embedded training team from the III Marine Expeditionary Force out of Okinawa, was only 21 at the time, making him among the youngest servicemembers ever to be honored with the medal.
But Obama said in his brief meetings with Meyer, the veteran came across as confident and composed beyond his years. The pair met at the White House a day earlier, after Meyer told staffers that he’d like to meet the president less formally before the medal ceremony.
“Dakota is the kind of guy who gets the job done,” Obama said.
Meyer did not speak at the event, but at his request much of the attention Thursday focused on the Marines who fought alongside him, and the men who died in the battle. Separate ceremonies honoring the fallen in their respective hometowns took place on Thursday, also at Meyer’s request.
Meyer is also working closely with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation to raise $1 million in college tuition for military children.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes, Meyer admitted that the media attention with that effort and public promotion of his story makes him uncomfortable, but he’s willing to do it to spread the story of his heroic fellow servicemembers.
“This is not about me,” he said in an interview with Stripes before the ceremony. “This is for the guys who died, and for the men and women still serving around the world.”