WASHINGTON — On the day President Barack Obama presented Dakota Meyer with the Medal of Honor, the 23-year-old Marine veteran from Kentucky stood silently, medals weighing on his chest, his face a mixture of pride and sadness.
For Meyer, the first living Marine to get the recognition in nearly four decades, the pomp during the ceremony at the White House was an uncomfortable moment in the limelight for a reluctant hero who looked far more at ease applauding his fellow comrades in arms than standing center stage.
So he stood there, hands folded behind his back, as the president listed exactly why the spotlight-shy young man deserved the nation's highest military award.
"In Sgt. Dakota Meyer, we see the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war," Obama said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
On Sept. 8, 2009, in a valley in mountainous northeastern Afghanistan, Meyer, then a 21-year-old corporal, repeatedly charged through enemy fire to rescue other Marines and U.S. and Afghan soldiers who had been ambushed by insurgents.
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.
He waded into the 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 told the Herald-Leader in an interview published Tuesday.
"Dakota, I know you've grappled with the grief of that day, that you said your efforts were somehow a failure because your teammates didn't come home," the president said. "But 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."
The Corps said Meyer's efforts in the six-hour battle saved the lives of 13 Marines and soldiers and 23 Afghan soldiers. He was later promoted to sergeant but has since left the military.
"You did your duty above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps you love," Obama said.
At the time of the battle, Meyer was barely old enough to drink the beer he shared with Obama outside the Oval Office on Wednesday.
Thursday, he stood onstage as a symbol of what many in his generation have endured.
"He may not think himself a hero, but his country certainly does," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday on the chamber floor.
Adjusting to civilian life has been difficult, Meyer told the Herald-Leader. But he said the transition had been eased by the support of family and friends in Columbia and Greensburg, the towns where he grew up.
He spends his days working for his cousin's construction company in Louisville — a job he has poured himself into so wholeheartedly that, when the White House tried to reach Meyer in the middle of a workday to tell him his medal had been approved, he asked whether the president could call back during a lunch break.
"I do appreciate, Dakota, you taking my call," Obama said with a smile.
Meyer also is working to raise money for a scholarship program to benefit children of wounded Marines.
Others "don't ... understand the sacrifices that people are giving," Meyer said of the men and women in uniform.
But Thursday, it was Meyer's turn to receive thanks for his sacrifice.
The East Room was silent as the president fastened the medal around Meyer's neck.
Then he put a hand on the young man's shoulder.