WASHINGTON — Dakota Meyer's commander had good reason to nominate the former Marine Corps corporal for the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest decoration for valor.
At least seven other participants in a battle in eastern Afghanistan backed Lt. Col. Kevin Williams in his decision to recommend the Kentucky native for the honor. They said that as Meyer battled to retrieve the bodies of four American comrades who'd been killed in an ambush, he repeatedly braved intense enemy fire and rescued wounded and frightened Afghan soldiers.
"Cpl. Meyer's efforts during the events of 08 September 2009 ensured the safety and recovery of a multitude of personnel that may have been lost if he had not performed so exceptionally," Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo attested in a sworn statement five months after the battle. "Cpl. Meyer placed himself in harm's way multiple times."
Discrepancies and contradictions might mar the Marine Corps' official account of Meyer's deeds, but the actions for which he originally was nominated shine through in the sworn statements that were included in his medal nomination.
They show that after hearing gunfire and explosions from Ganjgal Valley — where some 90 Afghan security forces and 11 U.S. Marine and Army trainers were on what was to have been a routine mission — Meyer took the initiative in seeking permission to launch a rescue effort.
"As I looked towards the valley I saw a volley of machine-gun fire and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) exploding all over the valley," recalled Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who was with Meyer guarding vehicles about a mile from Ganjgal.
"Cpl. Meyer yelled for me to get in the driver's side of the gun truck that he was manning," Rod riguez-Chavez continued. When he got in, "Meyer was already on the radio trying to reach the (U.S. trainers), but he had no luck."
The pair eventually got word to stay put. But as the battle raged and they heard that four comrades were trapped in a house, Meyer again sought permission to drive forward. Again, they couldn't raise their commanders. Rodriguez-Chavez and Marine Staff Sgt. Guillermo Valadez, who was monitoring the battle from a mountaintop, then agreed that Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer should move.
They barreled through mortar and RPG fire, Meyer exposed in the turret of their Humvee to a hail of enemy fire, switching between a grenade launcher and a machine gun. Rodriguez-Chavez steered up a rutted track into the valley of terraced fields framed by rugged mountains.
"I did not have to be down in the valley to witness the brave actions of Staff Sgt. Rodriguez-Chavez and Cpl. Meyer," Valadez said in a Feb. 27, 2010, statement. "I witnessed their extraordinary actions from afar and I am still awed at the thought of their bravery."
It's impossible to reconstruct a clear, chronological account of much of what followed from the statements included with Meyer's medal nomination and separate sworn statements taken in two U.S. military investigations into the battle that claimed 15 U.S. and Afghan lives.
But the statements attest to Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez — who was awarded a Navy Cross — making a number of attempts to reach their trapped comrades, and stopping to retrieve wounded Afghans under enemy fire and drive them to safety. At one point, Meyer descended to check on a prone Afghan as "rounds were impacting near his feet," only to discover that the man was dead, Rodriguez-Chavez said. Meyer was wounded by shrapnel in the arm during one of the runs.
Weapon malfunctions forced the pair to switch Humvees twice. On the final run, Meyer and Rod riguez-Chavez were joined by Army Capt. William Swenson, Fabayo and a translator. Meyer was in the back seat, his place in the turret taken by Fabayo. Several Afghan army vehicles crunched up the track behind them into the village.
A U.S. helicopter dropped a purple smoke grenade to mark the location of the bodies of the four dead Americans — three Marines and a Navy corpsman — that had been spotted in a trench to which they'd retreated from the house in which they'd been besieged.
As insurgents fired from their positions in the fortresslike village and surrounding slopes, Meyer and Swenson dashed from the vehicle — Meyer racing toward his fallen comrades, Swenson directing U.S. helicopters and firing back at the enemy before joining Meyer at the trench.
Rodriguez-Chavez recounted that after Meyer and some Afghan soldiers recovered the Americans' bodies and returned to the Humvee, Meyer "got into the front passenger seat and with a startled look on his face told me they were all dead."