Defying orders, hero Marine saved other troops

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with former Marine Corps Cpl. Dakota Meyer during a ceremony at the White House on Thursday where the president awarded him the Medal of Honor.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Defying orders and tempting fate, Marine cpl. Dakota Meyer charged five times in a Humvee into heavy gunfire in the darkness of an Afghanistan valley to rescue comrades under attack from Taliban insurgents.

On Thursday, Meyer, 23, was presented with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, by President Barack Obama.

Meyer’s heroics during the six-hour ambush saved the lives of 36 people, both Americans and Afghans. He killed at least eight Taliban insurgents. Firing from a gun turret on top of the Humvee driven by a fellow Marine, he provided cover for his team, allowing many to escape likely death.

He was defying orders from his commanders, who told him to stay back. The kill zone, they said, was too dangerous. But the young corporal, just 21 years old at the time, knew his friends were trapped that early morning in September 2009.

Meyer, later promoted to sergeant and now out of the Marines, is the third living recipient and the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Despite Meyer’s heroics, four American soldiers died in the ambush: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 23, from Virginia Beach; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., 31, a gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga. A fifth man, Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M., later died from his wounds.

Meyer says he has struggled with the national attention, with being recognized for the worst day of his life. He requested that memorial services for those who died that day be held in their hometowns at the same time he received the Medal of Honor.

For all the praise heaped upon Meyer, questions have also been raised about whether the military could have prevented the deaths of the five Americans. Two Army officers were reprimanded for being “inadequate and ineffective” and for “contributing directly to the loss of life” following an investigation into the day’s events.

“You can’t say this with any certainty, but the chances are, in my opinion, that yes they would have been still alive,” said retired Col. Richard Hooker, who led the investigation.

Meyer was part of a security team supporting a patrol moving into a village in the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009. Suddenly, lights in a nearby village went out and gunfire erupted. About 50 Taliban insurgents had ambushed the patrol.

As the forward team took fire and called for support, Meyer begged his command to let him into the incoming fire to help.

Four times he was denied before he and another Marine, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, jumped into the Humvee and headed into the fray. For his valor, Rodriguez-Chavez, a 34-year-old who hailed originally from Acuna, Mexico, would be awarded the Navy Cross.

With Meyer manning a gun turret, the two drew heavy fire. They began evacuating wounded Marines and American and Afghan soldiers to a safe point. Meyer made five trips into the kill zone.

During that fifth trip into the kill zone, a 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.

“It might sound crazy, but it was just, you don’t really think about it, you don’t comprehend it, you don’t really comprehend what you did until looking back on it,” Meyer said.

Wounded and tired, Meyer left the relative safety of the Humvee and ran out on foot.

Ducking around buildings to avoid gunfire, he reached the bodies of his fallen comrades.

Meyer and two other troops dodged bullets and rocket-propelled grenades to pull the bodies out of a ditch where the men had died while trying to take cover.

Printed on Friday, September 16, 2011 as: Medal of Honor awarded to marine.