A retired Marine corporal who was wounded in Afghanistan while rescuing 36 fellow Marines and soldiers from an ambush was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, Thursday at the White House by President Obama.
Retired Sgt. Dakota Meyer, 23, of Greensburg, Ky., received the award for his actions in Kunar province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 8, 2009. He is the third living recipient and first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Cpl. Meyer, then 21, manned the gun turret of a Humvee and, against orders, returned to the firefight five times to rescue other wounded Marines and American and Afghan soldiers pinned down during the six-hour battle.
His commanders had ordered him to stay back, out of the kill zone - it was too dangerous, they said - but the young corporal returned again and again, killing at least eight Taliban insurgents while providing cover for his team, allowing many to escape likely death.
He was wounded in the arm by shrapnel.
“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,” Mr. Meyer said Thursday, struggling for words.
The president praised his courage and humility. Mr. Obama joked that when he called Mr. Meyer, who was promoted to sergeant before leaving the Marines, at his construction job to inform him of the award, “he felt he couldn’t take the call right then, because he said, ‘If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.’ “
The White House arranged to call back on his lunch break.
The president took a moment to address the former Marine’s public comments about the guilt he has felt because four Americans died in the ambush despite his efforts.
“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,” Mr. Obama 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 Marines who died in the firefight were: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25, from Virginia Beach; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., 31, a gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga. Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M., later died from his wounds.
Cpl. Meyer and two others dodged bullets and rocket-propelled grenades to pull the bodies out of a ditch where the men had died while trying to take cover..
In the audience in the East Room were dozens of Marines and other service members and Mr. Meyer’s family.