COLUMBIA — Two years ago, Dakota L. Meyer had just gone through a hell he had not expected to survive.
On Sept. 8, 2009, in a narrow valley in mountainous northeastern Afghanistan, Meyer, then a 21-year-old corporal in the Marine Corps, repeatedly charged through murderous enemy fire to rescue other Marines and U.S. and Afghan soldiers who had been ambushed by Taliban fighters.
"I was just waiting to get killed in there. I never thought I was going to make it out alive," Meyer told the Herald-Leader.
But Meyer, firing a heavy machine gun from the turret of a gun truck, killed at least eight insurgents, picked up wounded and dead men and provided cover that allowed his team to fight its way out of certain death, according to the Marine Corps.
Meyer's efforts in the six-hour battle saved the lives of 13 U.S. Marines and soldiers and 23 Afghan soldiers, the Corps said.
For those actions, President Barack Obama will present Meyer with the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor, in a ceremony at the White House on Thursday.
Meyer will be the first living Marine to get the award in nearly four decades. He will become the 55th man born in Kentucky to be awarded the Medal of Honor since it was established during the Civil War, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Even though he's being honored, Meyer said he failed that day.
He went into that swarm of bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire to find four friends who were pinned down, but they were dead.
"I went in there to get those guys out alive and I failed. So I think it's more fitting to call me a failure than a hero," Meyer said.
That uncompromising view is typical of Meyer, said friends and family.
They think he's being too hard on himself.
So do many others.
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, said in a statement that Meyer's heroic actions "serve as an inspiration to all Marines and will forever be etched in our Corps' rich legacy of courage and valor."
Striving to be the best
Those who know Meyer best aren't surprised at the grit and determination he showed on what he calls the worst day of his life.
Meyer, now 23, learned responsibility early, growing up on a farm in Adair County, near the Green County line.
When he was 4, he wanted to ride a three-wheel all-terrain vehicle. His father, Mike Meyer, told him he could if he could push down hard enough on a pedal to kick-start the engine, because the battery was dead.
He tried for weeks and finally got the machine started. "He's always had that determination," Mike Meyer said.
In the 8th grade, Meyer's father told him he wouldn't make it as a running back on the football team. Meyer transferred from Adair County High School to Green County for his junior and senior years.
He played running back during high school and he played well enough to make an all-star team that went to Hawaii.
"I proved him wrong," Meyer said smiling.
Mike Griffiths, who coaches football at Green County High School, said Meyer worked hard in the off-season to get ready and played full-speed.
"He wanted to be the best at everything he did," said Griffiths.
Teachers said Meyer was smart, confident and quick-witted, with a mischievous streak. A chemistry teacher told her students she gave them work because she loved them; Meyer dropped to his knee one day and proposed, Griffiths said.
Meyer also had — and still has — a strong will and firm opinions. He wanted to be pushed and he occasionally pushed back, earning him trips to the office when teachers thought his challenges had crossed a line.
"I had a good relationship with him because I saw him a lot," said Griffiths, who was then an assistant principal.
Griffiths said he didn't think Meyer was disrespectful to teachers.
Tana Rattliff, who teaches special-needs students at Green County High, said she saw what a good person Meyer is when he volunteered as a peer tutor in her class his senior year in 2005-06.
One autistic student had a Spandex body sock to help deal with sensory issues, but didn't like to wear it.
Meyer put on the suit and went out into the hallway to show the student it was okay — something many high-school athletes would see as not terribly cool, Rattliff said.
"He's a good guy," said Rattliff, who calls Meyer her adopted son.
Meyer joined the Marines almost on the spur of the moment his senior year.
As Meyer passed by, a recruiter at school asked him what he planned to do after high school.
Meyer told the recruiter he was going to try to play college football.
The recruiter threw down the gauntlet, telling Meyer that was a good idea because "there's no way you could be a Marine."
Meyer told him to prepare the paperwork, which his father needed to sign because Meyer was only 17.
"There was a challenge," Meyer said. "I believe that's what's motivated me my whole life, is challenges."
Ann Young, a counselor at Adair County High and longtime family friend of Meyer, said she and her husband Toby, a state police officer, talked about what could happen if Meyer went into combat.
"We felt like if there was a fight he would be in the middle of it," Young said. "We knew that he would not let a dangerous situation stop him or change his actions."
It wasn't expected
Meyer trained as an infantryman and sniper — the occupation code for the specialty, 0317, is tattooed on his right arm — and did a tour in the war in Iraq in 2007 before choosing an assignment in Afghanistan in 2009.
The battle later that year in the Ganjgal Valley wasn't expected.
There was known insurgent activity in the area, but the mission that day was to meet with elders in a small village who had expressed a desire to renounce the Taliban and support the U.S.-backed government, said Meyer, who was on a team training and advising Afghan soldiers.
Meyer's orders were to stay at an observation post near the village as other members of his team — along with other U.S. and Afghan soldiers — walked into the village at first light, according to the Marine Corps account of the battle.
As the patrol approached, the lights in the village suddenly went out and more than 50 insurgents opened fire from inside the village and from fortified positions on the mountainsides above.
The insurgents had set up what the Marines described as a "premeditated, one-kilometer-long, U-shaped kill zone."
Other members of Meyer's embedded training team were pinned down and surrounded, but their calls for an artillery barrage or air support were turned down, reportedly out of concern over hitting civilians.
The Army later reprimanded officers blamed for negligent leadership in the mission.
As casualties mounted that day, Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, one of the members of Meyer's training team, yelled over the radio that if the team didn't get some air support, "we are going to die out here," according to the official account.
Meyer, chafing at not being able to help his friends, asked four times for permission to go into the village. Four times, superiors said no.
That's when he decided to disobey his orders. He jumped into the gun turret of a Humvee, with staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who was driving, and headed into the killing zone.
The two picked up wounded soldiers and gave them aid and recovered bodies, taking them out of the village area as Meyer held off enemy fighters with fire from the turret machine gun.
Rodriguez-Chavez warned Meyer they might get stuck in the rough terrain, making them sitting targets.
"I guess we'll die with them," Meyer said, according to the Marine Corps account.
Meyer was hit in the arm by shrapnel, but he and Rodriguez-Chavez kept going back to look for the three Marines and one sailor from Meyer's training team.
At one point, they had to switch trucks because of a malfunction.
The two made five trips into the ambush zone, joined at some point by Marine 1st. Lt. Ademola Fabayo and Army Capt. William Swenson.
On the fifth trip, Meyer, guided by a helicopter that finally showed up, ran through heavy gun and mortar fire and found the four members of his team lying dead in a ditch where they'd taken cover.
The team members were Johnson; staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick; Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson; and Petty Officer Third Class James Layton.
Meyer and others carried their bodies out. He said he never stopped to think of his own safety when he tried repeatedly to rescue his friends, largely because "that's what we sign up for" as Marines.
"We know what we're getting into," he said.
With the second anniversary of the battle approaching, Meyer said he didn't want to discuss some details of the fight. But it's clear that battle is with him every day.
Asked what he could have done differently that day, Meyer said he could have gone into the village sooner, or not gone back to get another truck after the first truck's machine gun malfunctioned.
Meyer, who was later promoted to sergeant, joined the Marine Corps anticipating he would stay until retirement. But he left active duty after his four-year stint was up in June 2010.
After all the combat, he said, "I just felt like that chapter in my life was good, was done."
Recognizing the 'worst day of your life'
Adjusting to civilian life has been difficult, Meyer said, but the transition has been eased a bit by support of family and friends in Columbia and Greensburg, the small towns in which he grew up.
Meyer does excavation and concrete work for McDan Inc., a company in Louisville that is owned by his cousin. Meanwhile, he is working to raise money for a scholarship program to benefit children of wounded Marines.
He doesn't think there is enough public recognition for the job done by U.S. men and women in uniform.
"I don't think they understand the sacrifices that people are giving," he said.
Griffiths said he doesn't think Meyer sleeps well, and Rattliff said Meyer has trouble relating to some people his age because they do not appear to have any goals.
"He's grown up really fast and really hard," Rattliff said.
She said there's a sense of sadness about Meyer at times.
"He's never going to forget ... but I just hope, in time, it's easier. He deserves good things," she said.
Meyer said if a person goes to combat, he or she will come back with problems.
"But, you know, at the end of the day that's not an excuse to feel sorry for yourself," he said.
There has been a crush of interest in Meyer as the date for him to receive the Medal of Honor nears.
He did two dozen interviews with national, regional and local media the last couple of weeks. The Marine Corps assigned a public-relations person to stay with him.
He has been asked to do everything from serving as grand marshal of the upcoming Cow Days parade in Greensburg to throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees-Red Sox game.
Obama phoned him at work, a spokesperson for Gov. Steve Beshear reached out to him and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now running for president, made three calls to Meyer, who lived in Austin briefly. Perry called the first time to congratulate him and later to check on him, Meyer said.
The attention has been amazing, Meyer said, but he has said many times the award is really for his comrades who died in Afghanistan.
"I'm going to meet the president. How do you put that in perspective?" he said. "But, you know, it's for the worst day of your life.
"That would be the most amazing (thing) out of all this ... if they could bring my guys back."