LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Dakota Meyer saved 36 lives from an ambush in Afghanistan and the former Marine will collect the nation's highest military honor at the White House on Thursday. While he is receiving the Medal of Honor, Meyer's slain comrades will be memorialized in hometown ceremonies at his request.
His hero's moment was his darkest day. Meyer lost some of his best friends the morning of Sept. 8, 2009, in far-off Kunar Province.
"It's hard, it's ... you know ... getting recognized for the worst day of your life, so it's... it's a really tough thing," Meyer said, struggling for words.
Meyer charged through heavy insurgent gunfire on five death-defying trips in an armored Humvee to save 13 Marines and Army soldiers and another 23 Afghan troops pinned down by withering enemy fire. Meyer personally killed at least eight insurgents despite taking a shrapnel wound to one arm as he manned the gun turret of the Humvee and provided covering fire for the soldiers, according to the military.
President Barack Obama will bestow the medal at a White House ceremony. The two have also met privately, having a beer on a patio outside the Oval Office on Wednesday.
"Over the weekend, the President's staff called Meyer in preparation for Thursday's Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. Meyer asked the staffer if he could have a beer with the President. POTUS invited Dakota to come by the White House this afternoon," spokesman Jay Carney tweeted.
In Afghanistan, Meyer was part of a security team supporting a patrol moving into a village in the Ganjgal Valley on the day of the ambush.
Meyer and the other Americans had gone to the area to train Afghan military members when, suddenly, the village lights went out and gunfire erupted. About 50 Taliban insurgents on mountainsides and in the village had ambushed the patrol.
As the forward team took fire and called for air support that wasn't coming, Meyer, a corporal at the time, begged his command to let him head into the incoming fire to help.
Four times he was denied his request before Meyer 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.
"They told him he couldn't go in," said Dwight Meyer, Dakota Meyer's 81-year-old grandfather, a former Marine who served in the 1950s. "He told them, 'The hell I'm not,' and he went in. It's a one-in-a-million thing" that he survived.
With Meyer manning the Humvee's gun turret, the two drew heavy fire. But they began evacuating wounded Marines and American and Afghan soldiers to a safe point. Meyer made five trips into the kill zone, each time searching for the forward patrol with his Marine friends — including 1st Lt. Michael Johnson — whom Meyer had heard yelling on the radio for air support.
With Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez ready to test fate a fifth time in the kill zone, a UH-60 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 and he had to bring them out.
"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.
"He just really took a chance," Dwight Meyer said.
Ducking around buildings to avoid heavy gunfire, he reached the bodies of Johnson, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., a 31-year-old gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga.
Meyer and two other soldiers dodged bullets and rocket-propelled grenades to pull the bodies out of a ditch where the men had died while trying to take cover.
The deaths of Meyer's comrades prompted an investigation into events that day, and two Army officers were later reprimanded for being "inadequate and ineffective" and for "contributing directly to the loss of life." Along with Meyer's friends, a fifth American — Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M. — was fatally wounded in the ambush.
Meyer said he'll be humbled by the memory of his fallen comrades as he receives the award Thursday. One of the memorials will be at a Columbus cemetery for gunnery sergeant Johnson, a father of three who served nearly 13 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Will Duke, one of the organizers, said the memorials spoke volumes about Meyer.
"I can tell by his actions, not only the actions he took in earning the Medal of Honor in Afghanistan but also the actions he is taking now. Essentially by requesting these memorial services for his fallen comrades, he's saying this is about them," Duke said.