WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama Thursday draped the pale blue ribbon suspending the Medal of Honor around the neck of Marine Corps Sgt. Dakota L. Meyer, the first living Marine to receive the award for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“It’s been said that where there is a brave man, in the thickest of the fight, there is the post of honor,” the commander in chief said. “Today we pay tribute to an American who placed himself in the thick of the fight again, and again, and again.”
Obama said Meyer, who is now 23 and was just 21 that day in Afghanistan, is “one of the most down-to-earth guys you will ever meet.”
When the president’s staff called the young Marine so the commander in chief could officially notify him of the medal, Obama said, Meyer was at work on his new civilian job at a construction site.
“He felt he couldn’t take the call right then because, he said, ‘If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,’” Obama said.
“So we arranged to make sure he got the call during his lunch break,” the president added.
Obama then turned to the events of Sept. 8, 2009, the day Meyer earned the medal as a corporal serving with Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, Regional Corps Advisory Command 3-7, in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Just before dawn, a patrol of Afghan forces and their American trainers, on foot and making their way through a narrow valley, was planning to meet with a group of village elders, the president said.
“Suddenly, all over the valley, the lights go out – and that’s when it happens,” Obama said.
About a mile away, Meyer and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez could hear the ambush over the radio.
Gunfire poured from houses, the hillsides, and even the local school, Obama said.
Soon, the patrol was pinned down, taking ferocious fire from three sides. “Men were being wounded and killed, and four Americans – Dakota’s friends – were surrounded,” he said.
After asking four times to go closer to the fight and help, and hearing each time that it was too dangerous, the two Marines got inside a nearby Humvee and headed into the fight, Rodriguez-Chavez at the wheel and Meyer manning the gun turret.
“They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right,” the president said.
On two solo trips into the ambush area, Meyer repeatedly got out of the Humvee to help Afghan troops, many wounded, inside the vehicle and back to safety.
“A third time they went back, insurgents running right up to the front of the Humvee, Dakota fighting them off,” Obama said.
This time, the men drove right up to the line of fire, and helped a group of wounded Americans battle their way to safety.
They then headed back on the fourth trip with Meyer wounded in the arm and the vehicle riddled with bullets and shrapnel, the president said.
“Dakota later confessed, ‘I didn’t think I was going to die, I knew I was.’ But still, they pushed on, finding the wounded [and] delivering them to safety,” Obama said.
On the fifth trip, the two Marines drove through fire “that seemed to come from every window, every doorway, every alley,” he said.
Finally, the two reached the four Americans who had been surrounded.
“Dakota jumped out and he ran toward them, drawing all those enemy guns toward himself; bullets kicking up the dirt all around him,” Obama said.
Meyer and others who had joined him picked up the fallen Marines and, “through all those bullets, all the smoke, all the chaos, carried them out one by one – because as Dakota says, that’s what you do for a brother,” the commander in chief said.
“Dakota says he’ll accept this medal in their name,” the president said. “So today, we remember the husband who loved the outdoors, Lt. Michael Johnson; the husband and father they called ‘Gunny J,’ Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson; the determined Marine who fought to get on that team, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick; the medic who gave his life tending to his teammates, Hospitalman 3rd Class James Layton; and a soldier wounded in that battle who was never recovered: Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook.”
Obama said while he knows Meyer has thought of himself as a failure because some of his teammates didn’t come home, “as your commander in chief, and on behalf of everyone here today and all Americans, I want you to know it’s quite the opposite.”
“Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today,” the president said. “Because of your courage, four fallen American heroes came home, and in the words of James Layton’s mom, [their families] could lay their sons to rest with dignity.”
Meyer’s father, Mike, grandparents, and more than a hundred friends and family members attended today’s ceremony.
Because of Meyer’s humble example, children all across America will know that “no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do great things as a citizen and a member of the American family,” the president said.
The commander in chief then asked Rodriguez-Chavez, now a gunnery sergeant, and all those present at the ceremony who served with Meyer, to stand “and accept the thanks of a grateful nation.”
Meyer joined in the applause.
Just before the citation reading and medal presentation, Obama said, “Every member of our team is as important as the other – that’s a lesson that we all have to remember, as citizens and as a nation, as we meet the tests of our time here at home and around the world. To our Marines, to all our men and women in uniform, to our fellow Americans, let us always be faithful.”
Meyer, who has left the active Marine Corps, and is a sergeant in the Inactive Reserve, is the 298th Marine ever to have received the medal, created during the Civil War. The nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor is awarded for risk of life in combat beyond the call of duty.
Meyer is the third living service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, following Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, who received the medal Nov. 16, 2010, and Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who accepted the award July 12.
Of ten Medal of Honor recipients for actions during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, the only other Marine is Cpl. Jason E. Dunham, who died April 22, 2004, of wounds received when he covered a live grenade with his own body to save the lives of fellow Marines in Iraq. Dunham’s parents accepted his posthumous Medal of Honor Jan. 11, 2007.