Video: Sgt. Dakota Meyer receives Medal of Honor

NBC News and news services
updated 9/15/2011 7:21:51 PM ET 2011-09-15T23:21:51

President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on Thursday to a former Marine who in 2009 made five death-defying forays into a "killing zone" in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley to save three dozen American and Afghan troops.

In recounting the heroic deeds of Dakota Meyer, 23, Obama reminded participants in a White House ceremony what Meyer said about recovering his fallen team.

"Every member of your team is as important as the other," Obama said.

In front of congressional and military leaders and Meyer's family, friends and colleagues, the president said the tale of the former Marine from southern Kentucky would serve not only as a lesson of bravery but also as a reminder to all:

"No matter who you are or where you come from, you can do great things as part of the American family."

The ceremony followed a Wednesday night beer the one-time farm boy shared with Obama outside the Oval Office ahead of the ceremony.

Obama retold the story Thursday that during six hours of ferocious fighting after an ambush by insurgents on Sept. 8, 2009, Meyer saved 13 Marines and Army soldiers and 23 Afghan soldiers, killed at least eight insurgents and carried from the battle zone the bodies of four fallen comrades — despite being wounded himself.

Image: Dakota Meyer receives Medal of Honor
NBC News
Dakota Meyer receives the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama at the White House.

"You did your duty, above and beyond," Obama told Meyer after reciting his dramatic story.

Obama noted Meyer, who was only 21 years old at the time, had to disobey orders to do it.

Speaking to Meyer's work ethic, Obama called him "one of the most down-to-Earth guys you will ever meet."

When the White House first called to talk to Dakota about the award, he was working on a construction job and didn't want to take the call immediately. The White House called back during Meyer's lunch break.

"If I don't work, I don't get paid," Obama said Meyer told him when the two finally did talk.

"He gets his job done," Obama said.

Meyer is modest in retelling the story for the past two year, Obama said.

"But, as you've said, you do it for a simple reason —retelling the story — because it helps you to honor those who didn't come home, and to remind your fellow Americans that our men and women in uniform are over there fighting every single day."

'Furthest thing from a hero'
Dakota at the time was serving as a member of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, Regional Corps Advisory Command 3-7, in Kunar Province in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Obama said. He is the third living recipient — and first Marine — to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Obama said Meyer represents the "best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war" that began shortly after terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, which the nation remembered on the 10th anniversary last weekend.

On behalf of Congress, the president placed the nation's highest military honor around Meyer's neck, patted his back and shook his hand as the audience in the White House East Room applauded.

Dakota, originally from Columbia, Ky., earlier told NBC News he is being recognized for the worst day of his life.

"Hero! I'm the furthest thing from a hero," he said. "Every man and woman who serves is a hero," he said, adding that he would accept the award "on behalf of the Marine Corps and the guys who died."

Slideshow: Medal of Honor recipients (on this page)

Meyer and the other Americans had gone to the valley to train Afghan military members.

They wanted to "talk to these village elders, try to convince them to support the government," Meyer said, as he recounted the day's events.

"The village was known to be bad. We went in there; they left me back at the trucks," he said of his four comrades.

Suddenly, the lights in the village went dark, and gunfire erupted. About 50 Taliban insurgents perched on mountainsides and taking cover in the village ambushed the patrol.

"There was so much gunfire it sounded like static going over you," he said.

"I didn't think I was going to die, I knew I was. I was just going to keep fighting until they got me. I wasn't going to sit there and lay down and let them win. That was the only thing on my mind was how to get those guys out. I would've done it again."

'Leave no man behind'
The forward team called for air support that wasn't coming.

"We had requested to go in three times before this and we were told no by the leadership in there," Meyer said.

Meyer and another Marine, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who received the Navy Cross for his actions that day, decided "we might as well go in there and help them," Meyer said.

"My brothers were there getting killed," Meyer said. "They were in under heavy fire and I knew I could go in there and help do something. I wasn't going to sit back and just watch it."

They jumped into an armored Humvee, and headed into battle with Chavez at the wheel and Meyer at the gun turret.

They began by evacuating wounded Marines and American and Afghan soldiers to a safe point. On one of the trips, shrapnel opened a gash in one of Meyer's arms.

On the third trip, Obama said, insurgents ran up to the Humvee and Meyer fought them off.

On his fifth trip, a UH-60 helicopter arrived at last to provide overhead support. Troops aboard the chopper told Meyer they had spotted what appeared to be four bodies. Meyer knew those were his friends, and he didn't want to leave them there.

He found his comrades all together, dead and lying in a ditch, stripped of their radios and weapons. They included:

  • 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach whom Meyer had heard yelling on the radio for air support.
  • Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.
  • Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.
  • Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., a 31-year-old gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga.

A fifth American — Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M. — was fatally wounded in the ambush.

Meyer and two other soldiers dodged bullets and rocket-propelled grenades to recover the bodies.

He described his feelings to NBC News.

"You didn't die but you died with them, part of you did," he said. "Leave no man behind is more than just words."

'I'm still angry about it'
Meyer told NBC News his comrades didn't have to die.

"Army commanders didn't provide artillery fire or reinforcements when requested," he said.

The deaths prompted an investigation, and two Army officers were reprimanded for being "inadequate and ineffective" and for "contributing directly to the loss of life."

"I'm still angry about it, but what are you going to do about it," Meyer told NBC News.

At Meyer's request, memorial services will be held for the five while he receives his award Thursday.

Will Duke, an organizer of the Columbus, Ga., memorial service for Sgt. Johnson, a father of three who served nearly 13 years in the Marine Corps, said Meyer's request speaks volumes for his character.

"I can tell by his actions, not only the actions he took in earning the Medal of Honor in Afghanistan but also the actions he is taking now," Duke said. "Essentially by requesting these memorial services for his fallen comrades, he's saying this is about them."

Meyer is back to pouring concrete at his construction job in Greensburg, Ky.

His father, "Big Mike" Meyer, told NBC News that his son is sleeping better at night now than when he first got home. "I don't think he'll ever get over it completely," Mike Meyer said.

Service and honors
In 2006, Meyer was ambling through his high school cafeteria when he came upon a Marines recruiter. Curious, the beefy senior struck up a conversation but told the military man he was hoping to play college football after graduation.

"Yeah that's what I would do, because there's no way you could be a Marine," the recruiter told him.

Meyer walked away, the taunting words ringing in his ears. He returned five minutes later, ready to enlist.

Image: Dakota Meyer
Dept. of Defense via AP, file
Marine Corps Cpl. Dakota Meyer while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Meyer will receive the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Thursday.

The White House said Meyer, who graduated from Green County High School, completed his basic training at Parris Island Recruit Training Depot later in 2006. He served in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009-10.

He serves in the inactive ready reserve of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve as a sergeant. He is an infantryman and scout sniper also trained as a combat lifesaver. At the time of his deployment to combat duty in Afghanistan he was serving as a turret gunner and driver.

His military decorations include: a Purple Heart Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and Good Conduct Medal. His other awards and decorations include the Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with one bronze campaign star, Iraq Campaign Medal with one bronze campaign star, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, NATO ISAF Afghanistan Medal, and a Rifle Expert Badge (3rd Award) and Pistol Expert Badge (2nd Award).

Meyer has partnered with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation in an attempt to raise $1 million by next May and has challenged Americans to match that money to help wounded Marines educate their children.

"Education paves the path for our future, and the money we raise will lead to a brighter future for the sons and daughters of many Marines," Meyer says on the group's website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Pre-9/11

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  1. George Sakato, 1921 –

    Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Sakato was a member of the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans who had been classified as undesirable aliens – and it became the most decorated unit in the Army in World War II.” When his platoon was pinned down in France, Sakato rushed the enemy’s position. He killed 12, wounded two and captured four.

    With the exception of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the following images come from the book "Medal of Honor: Potraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty." Over 3000 people have received the honor; a selection of the recipients appear in the following slideshow.
    (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Joe Foss, 1915-2003

    As a captain, he led a Marine air unit (“Joe’s Flying Circus”) that shot down 72 Japanese planes. He downed 26 himself, tying a record set in World War I. Foss went on to serve as governor of South Dakota, commissioner of the American Football League, and president of the National Rifle Association. Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Shot down four times in the five-week battle for Guadalcanal, Joe Foss was a fearless Marine fighter pilot who led attacks against superior forces of Japanese air formations.” (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Vernon Baker, 1919 – 2010

    His Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor in 1997 after a military study concluded racial discrimination prevented some World War II awards from being given. As a second lieutenant, Baker fought in Italy, advancing his platoon despite enemy fire and covering the evacuation of wounded soldiers by taking an exposed position. He also led a voluntary advance through a minefield. Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs “Of his platoon of 25 men, only six survived the battle, and it was Baker’s leadership and individual courage that defeated the enemy.” (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bob Bush, 1926- 2005

    As a medical corpsman in the Navy, Bush tended to the injured in the battle of Okinawa in 1945. Despite a barrage of artillery, mortar and machine gun fire, Bush cared for the dying. Even after an eye injury, he fired a pistol and an abandoned carbine at the enemy to protect those around him. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jack Lucas, 1928 – 2008

    Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Lucas lied about his age and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of 13. At 14 he became an instructor.” As a private, Lucas fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. After an ambush, he flung himself on a grenade and threw another under himself to protect his comrades. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. John Finn, 1909-2010

    Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “Roused from sleep by the attack, he raced to a nearby airfield and moved a machine gun into an exposed position, from which he shot at the attacking Japanese planes.” After receiving first aid, he returned to the squadron area and supervised the re-arming of returning planes during the Battle of Pearl Harbor. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lewis Millet, 1920 - 2010

    As an Army captain in the Korean War, Millett led his company in an attack against a strongly-held position. He was in front, with a fixed bayonet, throwing grenades and shouting encouragement to the men behind him. The assault was successful, and despite injury, Millet refused evacuation until his company's position was secure. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Ronald Rosser, 1929 –

    During the Korean War, when this Army corporal found his men under fire from two directions, he turned his radio over to his assistant and charged the enemy positions armed with only carbine and a grenade. When he exhausted his ammunition, he returned through enemy fire to obtain more ammunition and grenades and charged the hill again. He returned three times to attack enemy positions. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tibor Rubin, 1929 -

    This Hungarian-born, Holocaust survivor was an Army rifleman during the Korean War. During one mission, he defended a hill for 24 hours under enemy fire, allowing his company to withdraw to safety. Rubin spent more than two years in a POW camp. Drawing on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp, Rubin swiped food from Chinese and North Korean depots and distributed it among his comrades. Says MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs, “He was recommended four separate times for the Medal of Honor, but did not receive it until 2005.” (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sammy Davis, 1946 –

    During Vietnam, Sgt. Davis’ gun crew came under attack. Despite violent recoils, blasts and injuries, he manned a machine gun to provide cover for his comrades. Then, he picked up an air mattress and struck out across a river to rescue wounded men on the other side. And he didn't know how to swim. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Bernie Fisher, 1927 –

    During an attack on a special forces camp in Vietnam, Major Fisher observed a fellow airman crash land on an airstrip. Fisher landed his plane and taxied almost the full length of the runway, which was littered with debris and parts of an exploded aircraft. Despite heavy ground fire, he completed his rescue and was able to gain enough speed to take off successfully. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Roger Donlon, 1934 -

    During a pre-dawn attack on Camp Nam Dong, Capt. Donlon directed defense operations and aborted a breach of the main gate. Despite being wounded in his stomach, shoulder and leg, he crawled from position to position, retrieving weapons, ammunition and injured soldiers. He hurled grenades at the enemy and administered first aid to the wounded. He continued to move around the perimeter until a mortar shell wounded him in the face and body. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ed Freeman, 1927 - 2008

    As a flight leader of a helicopter lift unit, Cpt. Freeman supported an infantry battalion in Vietnam. When his landing zone was closed due to direct enemy fire, he flew his unarmed helicopter regardless, risking his life to deliver ammunition and supplies to the soldiers on the ground. He also provided life-saving evacuations to some 30 wounded men. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Bob Howard, 1939 – 2009

    Howard was a platoon sergeant on a mission to rescue a missing soldier in Vietnam. He was wounded by a grenade explosion, but crawled through enemy fire to retrieve his injured platoon leader. He dragged him back to safety and rallied the soldiers to an organized defense. He then moved from position to position, tending to the injured. Howard supervised the loading of his men and did not leave the landing zone until all were in the air. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tom Norris, 1944

    As a Navy SEAL during Vietnam, Lt. Norris completed a ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within enemy territory in Quang Tri Province. After rescuing the first man, Norris dressed as a fisherman and evacuated the second pilot – who he covered with bamboo and vegetation to evade enemy patrols. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Jack Jacobs, 1945 -

    Serving in Vietnam, Jacobs ordered a withdrawal from an exposed position and established a defensive perimeter after his battalion came under fire. Despite head wounds which impaired his vision, he returned under intense fire to evacuate a seriously wounded advisor. He then returned to evacuate his wounded company commander. Jacobs made repeated trips across the fire-swept rice paddies to evacuate the injured. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Clarence Sasser, 1947 -

    Serving as a medical aidman during a reconnaissance mission, Spc. Sasser ran across an open rice paddy through a hail of fire to assist the wounded in Vietnam. Refusing medical attention, he gave treatment and searched for wounded men. When injuries immobilized him, he dragged himself to tend to an ailing soldier. From a position of relative safety, he cared for a group of men for five hours until they were evacuated. (Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Nick Del Calzo / Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation
    Above: Slideshow (17) Medal of Honor recipients - Pre-9/11
  2. Image: William Swenson
    Alex Brandon / AP
    Slideshow (14) Medal of Honor recipients - Post-9/11

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