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Marine’s Actions in Afghanistan Earn Medal of Honor, Become Stuff of Folklore

September 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
At a ceremony at the White House on Thursday, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor for rescuing U.S. and Afghan comrades caught in a Taliban ambush two years ago. Jeffrey Brown discusses the events with author Bing West.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even in the annals of the nation’s highest military decoration, the actions of Marine Srg. Dakota Meyer were extraordinary.

Two years ago, Meyer, joined by fellow Marine Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, went directly into a hail of enemy fire in the Ganjgal Valley of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, rescuing 36 U.S. and Afghan comrades caught in a Taliban ambush.

That’s what President Obama saluted as he bestowed the Medal of Honor on Srg. Meyer.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Four times, Dakota and Juan asked permission to go in; four times they were denied. It was, they were told, too dangerous. But one of the teachers in his high school once said, “When you tell Dakota he can’t do something, he’s is going to do it.”


BARACK OBAMA: And as Dakota said of his trapped teammates, “Those were my brothers, and I couldn’t just sit back and watch.”

The story of what Dakota did next will be told for generations.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the president alluded, there was another element in this story that is unusual. Meyer and Chavez were acting on their own.

All in all, as chronicled in a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal: “This battle has entered military folklore, and resulted not only in today’s Medal of Honor, but in two Navy Crosses, two investigations for dereliction of duty, three letters of severe reprimand, and a recommendation for a second Medal of Honor.”

The writer of that line was Bing West, himself a former Marine captain and now author of several books on the military. He was at today’s ceremony and joins us now.

Welcome to you.

BING WEST, author: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: September 2009, a remote village in Afghanistan. Set the stage for us. What were U.S. forces doing? What they were up — about?

BING WEST: Well, I had been out there for about a year off and on with this unit, and they were right on the Pakistan border, right next to the infamous Korengal Valley. And they were supposed to interdict the al-Qaida and Taliban troops that were coming into Afghanistan from Pakistan.

And in this small, remote village called Ganjgal, the villagers said, will you come in and help us with a mosque? So, 100 Afghan soldiers with their American advisers went in, thinking they’re going to help them, but it was a setup. And they ran into a terrific ambush.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, then-Cpl. Meyer, right — we referred to him as sergeant, but he was a corporal at the time — he heard the calls for help, for artillery fire — artillery fire — excuse me — which were refused…

BING WEST: Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: … on grounds that, what, it might hurt civilians?

BING WEST: Exactly. They were in the middle of a village, and people up the chain of command choked, didn’t really understand how severe the firing was, and didn’t respond.

And there was a captain by the name of Swenson, an Army captain. He kept saying, you have to shoot. They weren’t shooting. So this 21-year-old Cpl. Meyer said, they’re in trouble. We’re going in. And he got in the turret of a Humvee. And he and Chavez-Rodriguez, a sergeant, drove into the middle of a huge ambush, all by themselves.

They picked up 12 wounded Afghans, brought them out. The truck was shot to pieces. They got into a second truck, went back in again, and, this time, Meyer is shooting al-Qaida and Taliban to the right and the left as he goes in, picks up some more wounded, comes out, changes to another truck, goes back in a third time, brings out some more Americans, goes back in a fourth time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because he realizes the fourth time — before the fourth time that there are still…

BING WEST: Some were missing.

JEFFREY BROWN: … some missing, yes.

BING WEST: And he wasn’t going to leave anybody out there. He went in five times to try to bring everybody back out, five times.

And the other side at first was saying, if you Americans will surrender — they were saying this over the radio — we will allow to you surrender. And, at the end, they were saying, kill them, kill them, kill them.

And they couldn’t. And he was killing them, 21 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: We referred to the investigations after the fact, the reprimands. Explain that. Take us through that a little bit. What happened in the aftermath of this?

BING WEST: Well, those things — I don’t mean to trivialize it like a football game, but people are going to do mistakes and people are going to get it right and the question is, who is standing in the end? Meyer was standing in the end.

But our bureaucracy had the sense to say this was wrong, and so they’re investigating carefully to determine what happened, what went wrong and why. That led to severe reprimands, release of command. And now it’s probably going to lead to another high-level medal for Capt. Swenson.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, tell us about him. He was an Army captain.

BING WEST: He was there. He was Army. So it was Army and Marines together.

And what I found remarkable about it, even though I knew them all, was that they didn’t know each other that well. But when this fight and all the chips were on the table and they weren’t getting any help from higher up, they all banded together. And Meyer showed the initiative at 21 years of age to take another group of people and say, come on, we’re going to win this battle.

And they did. It was just by sheer determination and initiative.

JEFFREY BROWN: And if I understand this right, Capt. Swenson left the Army without having been honored at that point.

BING WEST: Nothing. Right, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s only after the fact that it’s gone up and people have realized what happened, and now he’s in line for a medal.

BING WEST: A new commander, Gen. Allen, took over in Afghanistan. He heard about this, and he said, well, wait a minute. He said, what’s going on here? He asked for another look at all the records, and he said, this is the only right thing to do. We’re going to send Capt. Swenson in for a high award because he deserves it.

So he opened up a record from two years ago and said, we’re going to correct this mistake.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about Dakota Meyer.


JEFFREY BROWN: You know him?

BING WEST: I know him quite well.

Dakota comes from Kentucky. He comes from a farm. He’s a tough kid and very, very determined. When Dakota makes up his mind, it’s very difficult to change his mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

BING WEST: Oh, it is. But he has those virtues that he’s going to stand by you, he’s going to let you know exactly what he’s thinking, and you’re not going to shake him.

And when he went into this battle, he refused — he thought he was going to die, but he wasn’t going to change his mind. I think it’s a great credit to us, Jeff, as a country that we have those young men who have that kind of initiative and determination. And he really had it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several — he got the Medal of Honor.

BING WEST: Got the Medal of Honor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several of the others got…

BING WEST: Navy Crosses.


BING WEST: And, today, I thought a great thing about the White House and about our country, when we went to the ceremony, there weren’t politicians there. There weren’t CEOs there. The only people who were there were all the people from the battlefield, corporals and sergeants in the greatest White House in the world celebrating one of their own.

And I think there are very few capitals and very few nations that would really do that. The president opened up the White House to the corporals and sergeants, and he did it so naturally. And I’m not — I’m not a Democrat, but he did it so naturally, you could tell that he just felt this was the right thing to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: I watched the ceremony, and I was watching now-Srg. Meyer. Could you tell how this all affected him?

BING WEST: Well, Dakota doesn’t feel that he deserved a medal because he went in for the sake of his four friends, and they died before he got there. And he keeps saying, you know: “I didn’t do it. I failed.”

JEFFREY BROWN: He got their bodies out, right?

BING WEST: He got everything — and he turned the battle, but in his own mind, he keeps saying, “If I had really done by my job, I would have gotten them out alive.”

And that’s — the president was saying to him even today: “Dakota, you couldn’t. You did all you could.”

But he has that indomitable spirit: “If I could have done better, I could have changed everything.”

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bing West, thanks so much.

BING WEST: Thank you.