Videos contradict Medal of Honor recipient's account of Ganjgal attack
By JONATHAN S. LANDAY | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: October 14, 2013
WASHINGTON — In his memoir of the 2009 battle in Afghanistan that brought him the Medal of Honor, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer describes how he reflexively switched from his machine gun to his rifle and back to his machine gun as he mowed down a swarm of charging Taliban from the vehicle’s turret.
“My mind was completely blank. I fired so many thousands of rounds I didn’t think what I was doing,” Meyer, then a corporal, wrote in his 2012 book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War.”
But videos shot by Army medevac helicopter crewmen show no Taliban in that vicinity or anywhere else on the floor of the Ganjgal Valley at the time and location of the “swarm.” The videos also conflict with the version of the incident in Marine Corps and White House accounts of how Meyer, now 25, of Columbia, Ky., came to be awarded the nation’s highest military decoration for gallantry.
The videos add to the findings of an ongoing McClatchy investigation that determined that crucial parts of Meyer’s memoir were untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, as were the Marine Corps and White House accounts of how he helped extract casualties from the valley under fire. The White House and Marine Corps have defended the accuracy of their accounts of Meyer’s actions. The Marine Corps declined to comment on the videos.
Army National Guard Sgt. Kevin Duerst, the helicopter crew chief whose helmet camera recorded one of the videos, confirmed the absence of insurgents on the valley floor as the aircraft flew in on a first run to retrieve casualties.
“We totally flew over everything. … There was nothing going on down there,” Duerst said in a telephone interview Friday. “There was no serious gunfight going on.”
Former Army Capt. William Swenson, who’s to receive a Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Tuesday for gallantry in the same battle, declined in an interview Sunday to directly address questions about the purported swarming of Meyer’s vehicle.
But, he said, the videos showed the reality of what happened in the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009.
“Those videos allowed me to relive the reality of that battlefield: what I saw, what other people saw, where people were, the valley, the terraces, the trees, the friendlies,” meaning Afghan and U.S. forces, said Swenson, 34, of Seattle. “It shows the truth of that battle, a truth I never expected to see again.”
In a telephone interview Friday, Meyer said, “I wrote my book to the best of my recollection of what happened. And if that’s not it, then that’s not it.”
After reviewing the videos, Meyer said his vehicle was charged after the helicopter had departed with Swenson’s wounded sergeant and an injured Afghan soldier. His book, however, puts the “swarm” before the aircraft landed for the pair.
Bing West, who co-authored the book, didn’t address the videos in an email, saying only that a McClatchy reporter who survived the ambush “has annually dredged up baseless innuendoes to attack the Medal of Honor process and to denigrate the valor of Meyer.”
The videos aren’t the only new evidence that’s surfaced that disputes crucial events described in the official accounts and in Meyer’s book.
The Army narrative of how Swenson was nominated for the Medal of Honor and Swenson’s comments in the interview undermine the book’s claim that Meyer killed an insurgent with a rock after he’d joined the then-Army captain in an unarmored pickup to recover casualties.
It was Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo, not Meyer, who rode in the truck with Swenson, according to Swenson and the account posted Thursday on an Army Web page devoted to Swenson’s Medal of Honor. Fabayo was a lieutenant at the time.
“Fabayo and I fought side by side for the entire battle,” Swenson said. “When Fabayo and I returned into that valley in that unarmored truck, he was shooting out of his passenger side window and I was on the radio, driving.”
It wasn’t until the pickup broke down and Fabayo and he switched to an armored Humvee for a final run that Meyer joined Marine Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, an Afghan translator and them, Swenson said.
The Army narrative and Swenson’s account are corroborated by sworn statements included in Meyer’s Medal of Honor file or given to military investigators after the battle by Rodriguez-Chavez, Fabayo and then-Maj. Kevin Williams, the Marine commander who nominated Meyer for his Medal of Honor.
The videos, Swenson’s comments and the Army account of Swenson’s actions add to the controversy that’s embroiled the battle from the minute it erupted. Tipped off in advance, scores of insurgents trapped Afghan forces and their American trainers in the U-shaped valley, firing storms of bullets and shells from a fortresslike village and the surrounding slopes.
A nearby U.S. base failed to provide air support or adequate artillery cover to the Afghan and U.S. forces for 90 minutes. Two Army officers later received career-ending reprimands, while Swenson — in an interview with military investigators — accused senior U.S. commanders of imposing politically driven rules of engagement that were getting U.S. troops killed.
The battle, which lasted six hours, cost the lives of five American servicemen, nine Afghan troops and an Afghan translator, and 17 others — including Swenson and Meyer — were wounded.
Swenson, who was training Afghan Border Police on his second tour of Afghanistan, and Meyer, who was training Afghan troops, were recommended separately for the Medal of Honor for repeatedly returning to the battlefield to retrieve casualties, including the bodies of three Marines and a Navy corpsman. Swenson also was recommended for his role in extracting U.S. troops from the ambush.
In addition to finding that key parts of Meyer’s memoir, as well as the Marine Corps and White House accounts of his actions, were embellished, untrue or unsubstantiated, McClatchy’s investigation raised questions about the military awards process, which some lawmakers, military officers and veterans groups say is subject to improper influence and manipulation.
McClatchy’s findings were based on dozens of military documents — including sworn statements by American participants in the battle — and on interviews last year with nine Afghan troops who survived the clash near the border with Pakistan.
The purported “swarm” of Meyer’s vehicle by charging insurgents is a major facet of the official narratives and his memoir.
In the book, Meyer and West wrote that Meyer, firing from his Humvee’s turret, killed up to five of some 10 insurgents who assaulted the vehicle as he and the driver, Rodriguez-Chavez, pushed into the ambush zone in a rock-strewn wash that leads up the Ganjgal Valley to the village of the same name.
Their telling describes Meyer’s purported thoughts and actions as he mows down Taliban with a .50-caliber machine gun and his rifle. Rodriguez-Chavez ran down an insurgent, they wrote.
Narrating the incident at Meyer’s Sept. 15, 2011, award ceremony, Obama related how the insurgents were “running right up to the Humvee, Dakota fighting them off.”
Meyer and West wrote that the “swarm” occurred just before an Army Black Hawk helicopter landed to retrieve Swenson’s sergeant, Kenneth Westbrook, who died a month later from complications from the treatment of bullet wounds. A map in the book titled “Meyer swarmed during MEDEVAC” pinpoints the location of the swarm at 300 meters — 328 yards — ahead of where the Black Hawk landed.
The videos, however, dispute the accounts of the “swarm” in the book, the Marine Corps accounts and the narrative Obama read.
Cameras mounted in the helmets of the co-pilot of the Black Hawk — Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Jason Penrod — and of the crew chief, Duerst, captured the scene as the aircraft flew into the valley to retrieve Westbrook and the wounded Afghan soldier.
All accounts agree that Westbrook was being carried out of the kill zone by other Americans escaping the ambush when Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer sped around them and headed up the wash in search of the missing Marines and Navy corpsman with whom contact had been lost.
The videos record the Black Hawk helicopter’s west-to-east flight up the wash. The aircraft then turns right onto a western heading, banks around and lands in clouds of dust to pick up Westbrook from a terrace where Swenson had laid out a bright orange panel. Swenson is seen kissing Westbrook on his forehead before the aircraft takes off.
The videos record sweeping shots of the terraced valley, occasional trees and enclosing slopes. Penrod’s video — shot through the cockpit windscreen — briefly shows another U.S. helicopter above the valley, looking to rain rockets and gunfire at any insurgents who showed themselves, and trying to spot the missing Americans.
No Taliban are seen anywhere on the valley floor, including the vicinity of the location of the “swarm” pinpointed by Meyer and West.
What is briefly seen in Penrod’s video, between the helicopter cockpit windshield divider and the right-hand wiper blade, are the blurry figures of the American ambush survivors crossing out of the kill zone with the injured Westbrook. Just ahead of them is a dust cloud thrown up by Meyer’s vehicle.
At that moment, Duerst’s video — shot from the Black Hawk’s right door — records an Afghan soldier walking upright in the open, pointing up toward the village. He’s the first of at least five Afghan soldiers seen in the vicinity of where Meyer and West pinpoint the surge. None are shooting or taking cover from incoming fire or explosions. Nor are they running to help as would be expected if insurgents were attacking Meyer’s vehicle.
Instead, the five walk slowly, fully exposed to any gunfire, moving toward the village. Duerst’s video shows a second Afghan soldier pointing up and forward, trying to direct the helicopter crew’s attention toward the village.
Duerst said the only insurgents seen firing were spotted by the crew member in the left-hand door in an area at the base of a mountain on the northern side of the village, which is about a quarter mile from the kill zone. “That’s why we turned when we did,” he explained.
In the interview, Meyer said the videos didn’t depict the time the swarm took place. He said his vehicle was charged after the aircraft flew away with Westbrook.
“There was no way I was all the way up. I didn’t even push forward … until that bird was out of that,” he said. “The bird was off the deck when the swarm happened.”
But the narrative in the book and a timeline in the appendix say the swarm occurred before the helicopter landed.
The timing of the videos with Meyer’s run into the wash also corresponds with sworn statements given by Rodriguez-Chavez, Fabayo and other U.S. servicemen.
The Army’s account of Swenson’s action and Swenson’s comments undermine Meyer’s claim that he killed an insurgent by bashing his head in with a rock.
In his memoir, Meyer relates how he joined Swenson in the unarmored Ford Ranger pickup belonging to the Afghan Border Police for a run into the kill zone to search for casualties and the missing Marines and Navy corpsman.
After returning to the wash, Meyer got out of the vehicle, while Swenson remained behind the wheel because of injuries, the book says.
Meyer, the book continues, ran across the body of Dodd Ali, an Afghan soldier whom he’d befriended, and as he was getting ready to pick up the corpse, a “tough looking Afghan with a long black beard” tried to take him prisoner at gunpoint.
After firing a grenade at the Afghan that failed to explode, Meyer grappled with the attacker and killed him with the rock, according to the book.
The incident, however, isn’t mentioned in any sworn witness statements — including the handwritten statement that Meyer provided to military investigators days after the battle — nor does it appear in any of the official accounts.
It was Fabayo, a Nigeria-born American citizen, who joined Swenson in the pickup — not Meyer — to retrieve casualties under ferocious enemy fire before the bullet-torn vehicle broke down, according to Swenson, the Army account of his actions and sworn statements, including by Rodriguez-Chavez, who was awarded the Navy Cross for gallantry.
“After the second trip, it became very clear to us the absurdity of the situation,” Swenson told McClatchy. “We are in an unarmored truck. We have helicopters overhead. The enemy is still engaging us and my truck is destroyed. We had to return; we had to get an armored vehicle.”
In a Nov. 12, 2009, statement to military investigators, Fabayo described the shock of finding numerous casualties, picking them up with Swenson and slinging them into the pickup.
“We had so many casualties. … I mean there was blood everywhere, guys shoot everywhere. It was turning into a mass casualty situation,” recalled Fabayo, who also received the Navy Cross for gallantry. “By that time, it didn’t matter. We were not going to leave our guys behind.”