When the call from the White House came, Dakota Meyer was working at a construction site and couldn’t get away. So the president’s staff had to call back during Meyer’s lunch break to invite him to Washington to receive the Medal of Honor.
“If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” the 23-year-old former Marine Corps sergeant later explained while enjoying a beer with President Obama on the lawn outside the Oval Office.
Meyer’s work ethic, determination and willingness to go against the grain to do what he thinks is right are central to his character. He cannot resist a challenge, and refuses to quit. He is loyal beyond convenience. And he never leaves a man behind.
“That’s what it means to be a friend,” Meyer said in his hometown of Greensburg, Ky., on Sept. 17. “You don’t abandon a friend just because things get tough. If you do, you are not a friend worth having.”
Meyer returned to Greensburg to serve as grand marshal in the town’s annual Cow Days parade, and be part of several activities planned in his honor. He dreaded the attention but accepted the spotlight, knowing that it comes with the nation’s highest military decoration. Meyer is the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the Medal of Honor.
He remembers the brief exchange with a Marine recruiter in the halls of Greensburg High School that changed the course of his life, and eventually landed him in the middle of a deadly firefight half a world away.
“What are you going to do when you graduate?” Meyer recalls the Marine asking him.
“I guess I want to go to college and play football,” he replied.
“Good thing, because it doesn’t look like you have what it takes to be a Marine,” the recruiter quipped as he walked away.
The challenge didn’t go unmet. Meyer joined the Marine Corps, and like thousands of others, ended up deploying to Iraq and later Afghanistan.
On Sept. 8, 2009, Cpl. Meyer – along with 13 U.S. military trainers and a column of Afghan soldiers and border police officers – set out for a routine meeting with elders of the village of Ganjgal, in a valley on the border with Pakistan. Nearly 50 insurgents ambushed the joint force, and as casualties mounted, Meyer and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez disobeyed orders to stay put, rescuing 36 U.S. and Afghan troops.
“I didn’t think I was going to die,” Meyer told the crowd at the Cow Days Festival. “I knew I was going to die. There was so much enemy fire whizzing past my head that it sounded like radio static.”
Festival organizers estimated that about 20,000 people turned out to see Meyer. The streets of Greensburg, a city of about 2,400, were lined 10 deep as everyone waited to get a glimpse of the hometown hero. Family, friends, neighbors, and local and state officials waved U.S. flags as he passed by in his dress blues, his Medal of Honor reflecting the bright September sun.
“There is no better place to be today than here in Greensburg,” said Gov. Steve Beshear, who bestowed on Meyer the title of Kentucky Colonel. “There is not a person here today who is not proud of you and the honor you have brought to yourself, to Greensburg, to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and to the nation. God bless you.”
Speakers praised Meyer for his deeds on and off the battlefield, and Greensburg Mayor George “Lisle” Cheatham announced that a street will be named for Meyer near the county’s new fire/EMS station. He also proclaimed Sept. 17 to be Dakota L. Meyer Day.
Meyer said he was only doing what the Marines taught him to do. “I’m not a hero. But I do accept this medal in memory of the true heroes who fought and died that day in the Ganjgal Valley of Kunar province. My regret is that everyone did not come home. For that, I feel like I failed.”
Two days before, at Meyer’s Medal of Honor ceremony, President Obama disagreed.
“Dakota, I know that you’ve grappled with the grief of that day,” he told the Marine. “You’ve said your efforts were somehow a ‘failure’ because your teammates didn’t come home. But as your commander in chief, and on behalf of everyone here today, I want you to know it’s quite the opposite. You did your duty, above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps that you love.”
James V. Carroll is photo editor for The American Legion Magazine.