Medal of Honor
Three years ago, Dakota Meyer was just another Marine serving in one of the most dangerous sections in Afghanistan, hoping to keep his team and himself alive.
Today, Meyer is one of only three living Medal of Honor recipients from the last decade of war, a position that has brought him lofty praise and uncomfortable scrutiny since receiving the medal last September.
“Everything I do now has to do with the worst day of my life, so it’s not easy,” he said. “But there’s a reason I still do it. If it gets to the point where I don’t feel like I can go out and touch someone, or I don’t feel like I’m honoring my guys who died, then I’ll hang it up.
“This [medal] isn’t for me. There’s nothing in it just for me.”
Four U.S. troops were killed in the battle for which Meyer was honored. The Sept. 8, 2009 mission in Ganjgal Valley was supposed to be a straightforward meeting with local elders, but a delegation of Marines was ambushed by dozens of enemy fighters as they approached a village there.
“I deal with demons every day. The price that was paid for me to be where I’m at now is huge.”
- Dakota Meyer
Meyer, then a corporal, was positioned hundreds of yards up the mountainside when the attack began. Seeing the carnage below, Meyer’s group called for air support multiple times but was denied. Within minutes, the trapped Marines’ radios went silent.
According to official Marine Corps reports, Meyer repeatedly asked for permission to drive down into the valley and save the Marines, but commanders off-scene told the troops to stay put, fearing civilian casualties and additional battlefield chaos.
Meyer and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez commandeered a vehicle and made repeated trips into the battlefield, protecting wounded troops and trying to thin out the heavy enemy fire. When their Humvee broke down, the pair found another one and went back in.
As the gunner throughout the six-hour battle, Meyer was constantly exposed to gunfire and grenade explosions. The blast from a rocket-propelled grenade slashed open his arm, but he fought through the injury.
On their fifth trip down the mountainside, this time joined by more U.S. troops, they located the missing team. Meyer and the others recovered their bodies.
“I go every day asking for forgiveness from those guys,” Meyer said. “I deal with demons every day. The price that was paid for me to be where I’m at now is huge.”
Marine Corps officials credited Meyer’s actions with helping to save the lives of 13 other Marines and 23 Afghan soldiers. Capt. Ademola Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez each received a Navy Cross for their heroism that day.
A McClatchy Newspapers investigation in December raised questions about the accuracy of the official reports, citing gaps in the timeline and conflicts among Army and Marine Corps witnesses to the battle. The series specifically cast doubt on the number of troops Meyer saved and the number of enemy fighters he killed.
Military officials stand by their version of the story, calling Meyer’s actions undeniably heroic, even if the details are murky.
It’s not the only controversy he has faced since the fall. He unsuccessfully tried to become a New York City firefighter. He also sued a former employer for defamation, in a case that was settled out of court.
Meanwhile, he maintains a brutal travel schedule, making dozens of charity appearances. He estimates that he’s on the road more than 20 days each month. When he’s at home in Kentucky, he works construction.
He also maintains a personal blog, talking bluntly about his lingering guilt and his desire to help veterans.
“To avoid thinking about [that day] I try to keep myself busy, running from it as long as possible,” he wrote recently. “But I will say I’m getting really tired. I’m slowing down. What isn’t slowing down though is the demons, the reality that my brothers, my best friends are gone.”
Meyer said he feels like the honest, unfiltered posts are important to keep himself grounded.
“I don’t want people to get this false image in their head,” he said. “I don’t want people to look and say, ‘Dakota does all these good things, and he’s this and that.’ I still deal with struggles. I’m no different than anyone else.”
And, he said, he’s been happily surprised by the response. Civilians ask him not just about the battle but also the brotherhood, and the sacrifices that troops have to make to defend the country. Veterans share with him their own struggles, and their appreciation of his efforts.
“The biggest message out of all this is that no matter how much it sucks, no matter how bad I feel, I still get out of bed every morning and do the best that I can,” he said. “It’s not for me. It’s for those guys that died.”