WASHINGTON — With Dakota Meyer standing at attention in his dress uniform, sweat glistening on his forehead under the television lights, President Barack Obama extolled the former Marine corporal for the "extraordinary actions" that had earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.
Obama told the audience in the White House East Room on Sept. 15 that Meyer had driven into the heart of a savage ambush in eastern Afghanistan against orders. He'd killed insurgents at near-point-blank range, twice leapt from his gun turret to rescue two dozen Afghan soldiers and saved the lives of 13 U.S. service members as he fought to recover the bodies of four comrades, the president said.
But there's a problem with this account: Crucial parts that the Marine Corps publicized and Obama described are untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, according to dozens of military documents McClatchy examined.
Sworn statements by Meyer and others who participated in the battle indicate that he didn't save the lives of 13 U.S. service members, leave his vehicle to scoop up 24 Afghans on his first two rescue runs or lead the final push to retrieve the four dead Americans. Moreover, it's unclear from the documents whether Meyer disobeyed orders when he entered the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009.
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The statements also offer no proof that the 23-year-old Kentucky native "personally killed at least eight Taliban insurgents," as the account on the Marine Corps website says. The driver of Meyer's vehicle attested to seeing "a single enemy go down."
What's most striking is that all this probably was unnecessary. Meyer, the 296th Marine to earn the medal, by all accounts deserved his nomination. At least seven witnesses attested to him performing heroic deeds "in the face of almost certain death."
Braving withering fire, he repeatedly returned to the ambush site with Army Capt. William Swenson and others to retrieve Afghan casualties and the dead Americans. He suffered a shrapnel wound in one arm and was sent home after the battle with combat-related stress. Meyer's commander, Lt. Col. Kevin Williams, commended him for acts of "conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his life ... above and beyond the call of duty."
But an exhaustive assessment by a McClatchy correspondent who was embedded with the unit and survived the ambush found that the Marines' official accounts of Meyer's deeds — retold in a book, countless news reports and on U.S. military websites — were embellished. They're marred by errors and inconsistencies, ascribe actions to Meyer that are unverified or didn't happen and create precise, almost novelistic detail out of the jumbled and contradictory recollections of the Marines, soldiers and pilots engaged in battle.
The approval of Meyer's medal — in an unusually short time — came as lawmakers and serving and former officers pressed the military services and the Pentagon to award more Medals of Honor because of the relatively few conferred in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only 10 of the decorations have been awarded since 2001, seven of them posthumously.
Meyer is the first living Marine since the Vietnam War to be awarded the honor. It was first bestowed in 1863.
The process for awarding the medal — designed by Navy rules to leave "no margin of doubt or possibility of error" — involves reviews by commanders at every level of the nominee's chain of command and then by top Pentagon officials. The nominating papers — known as a "medal packet" — typically comprise dozens of sworn witness statements, maps, diagrams, a draft citation and a more detailed account of the nominee's deeds.
As the Afghan and Iraq wars wind down, senior Marine Corps officials conceded the pressure to award more medals, and to do it quickly. One senior Marine official told McClatchy that the service felt that it deserved the decoration after having served in the toughest, most violent areas of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In response to McClatchy's findings, the Marine Corps said it stood by the official citation that was produced by the formal vetting process. Asked to explain the individual discrepancies and embellishments, the Marines drew a distinction between the citation and the account of Meyer's deeds that the Marines constructed to help tell his story to the nation. They described that account as "Meyer's narrative of the sequence of events," which Marine officials said they didn't vet.
Hours before this McClatchy report was published, the Marine Corps inserted a disclaimer into its official online account of Meyer's heroic actions. The Web page now reads that the summary "was compiled in collaboration" with Meyer and Marine Corps Public Affairs.
A prominent historian of military medals, Doug Sterner, expressed disbelief at the idea that the Marine Corps would publicize an account of a complex battle based solely on the recipient's recollections.
"Give me a break," Sterner said. "A recipient is responsible for writing his narrative? I have never heard of such a thing."
The Marine officials, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, acknowledged that portions of the narrative were changed from the account Williams submitted. They said that the changes occurred between July, when Obama approved Meyer's medal nomination, and the September White House ceremony. Inaccuracies were written into the citation and the narrative of Meyer's deeds, although the narrative contained far more errors and exaggerations.
The president's version drew on materials the Marine Corps provided but it was written in the White House, the Marine officials said. While there's no indication that the White House knew that Obama was narrating an embellished story — to an audience of several hundred Meyer family members, top officials, lawmakers and service members — the revelations could tarnish one of the signature moments of his time as commander in chief.
The White House said Obama's remarks were based primarily on "extensive documentation provided by the Department of Defense and the Marine Corps," including sworn testimony from Meyer and other eyewitnesses. It also relied on news reports and on a 2011 book, "The Wrong War" by Bing West. However, McClatchy found that the book's account of the battle is riddled with inaccuracies.
Sterner said errors in citations had always haunted recipients and that many Medal of Honor winners had been cited for things they didn't do. He added that the mounting pressure to find a living recipient has made mistakes in details almost inevitable.
"Did this man deserve the Medal of Honor? If the answer to that is yes, then the details of the citation become secondary," Sterner said. "But we do need to keep the record as accurately as we possibly can."
From Kentucky to the White House
The fallout could obscure Meyer's genuine acts of heroism and threaten a book contract, speaking engagements and other deals that have lifted him from the obscurity of rural Greensburg, Ky., to fortune and national renown, including famously having a beer with Obama at the White House the day before the ceremony.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Meyer declined to comment.
McClatchy found that the claim that Meyer saved the lives of 13 U.S. Marines and soldiers couldn't be true. Twelve Americans were ambushed — including this correspondent — and of those, four were killed. (One wounded American would die a month later.) Moreover, multiple sworn statements affirm McClatchy's firsthand reporting that it was the long-delayed arrival of U.S. helicopters that saved the American survivors.
There are no statements attesting to Meyer killing eight Taliban as recounted on the Marine Corps website. The driver of Meyer's vehicle, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, reported seeing Meyer kill one insurgent.
No sworn statements — including one Meyer gave to military investigators five days after the battle — refer to him leaping from the Humvee's turret to rescue 24 wounded Afghan soldiers on his first two runs into the valley. Rodriguez-Chavez attested to nine Afghan soldiers getting into the Humvee by themselves while Meyer remained in the turret.
Four sworn statements, including Rodriguez-Chavez's, undermine the claim that he and Meyer drove into the valley against orders. And the documents indicate that it was Swenson who led the final drive to retrieve the fallen Americans, taking command of Meyer's Humvee after ditching his bullet-riddled Ford Ranger. Meyer rode in the Humvee's back seat.
The inflated versions of events were prepared at the Marine Corps' Public Affairs office at the Pentagon by a special working group assembled for the task, a knowledgeable official said. The group consulted Meyer's former commander, Williams, as it drafted the citation, but it didn't confer with him in assembling the account posted on the Marine Corps website, the official said.
The Marines excluded Williams — who was shot and wounded in the left arm during the battle and won a Bronze Star for valor — from Meyer's ceremony at the White House. Also excluded was Capt. Ademola Fabayo, who won the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor, for his role in Ganjgal. Williams and Fabayo declined to be interviewed for this article.
Many of the exaggerations appear in "The Wrong War" by West, a Marine veteran and former senior Pentagon official-turned-bestselling writer.
West, who frequently embeds with troops and has testified before Congress on military strategy, spoke with Meyer a few days after the battle. The pair recently signed a contract with West's publisher, Random House, to co-write Meyer's memoir, due out next July. They received an advance that a well-informed publishing industry executive, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to disclose the information, described as being in the "mid-six figures."
West didn't respond immediately to telephone messages seeking comment.
Meyer's own public retelling of the battle hasn't always been accurate. In a CBS "60 Minutes" interview that was taped before the White House ceremony and aired Sept. 19, he recounted: "Me and Capt. Swenson kept driving this unarmored truck through this valley. The rounds are going everywhere through it. You've got both windows down, you could hear them whizzing through."
But the sworn statements show that Meyer didn't ride in the unarmored Ford Ranger pickup that Swenson drove through Ganjgal Valley.
Pressure for medals
Obama held up Meyer as embodying "the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war." But even beyond individual heroism, the military prizes the Medal of Honor as recognition of the contributions of the recipient's unit and branch of service.
In recent years, some lawmakers and active and retired military officers have questioned whether the relatively few medals awarded since 2001 are the result of a quiet toughening of the criteria.
A March 2009 study by the Army Times found that from World War I through Vietnam, the medal was awarded at a rate of 2.3 to 2.9 per 100,000 service members. But only five Medals of Honor were awarded between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the publishing of the study, a rate of 1 in 1 million. All five were posthumous. Since that study, five medals have been awarded, three to living recipients.
In January, a congressionally mandated Pentagon study found that Medal of Honor criteria hadn't been tightened. Instead, it said, the development of high-tech, long-range weapons and insurgents' increased use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers had reduced face-to-face combat.
The findings, however, didn't end the controversy.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in an Oct. 4 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that he "categorically disagreed with the notion that warfare somehow changed and those who were taking and holding ground from the enemy, and often engaged in close-quarter combat, were in some way ineligible for the nation's highest military award for valor."
Hunter urged Panetta to review four cases in which service members had been nominated for Medals of Honor but received lesser decorations. They included Marine Cpl. Rafael Peralta, whose 2004 medal nomination for covering a grenade with his body in Iraq and saving his colleagues' lives was downgraded by the Pentagon to a Navy Cross. The decision was based on a finding that Peralta had been shot in the head and therefore wasn't acting voluntarily — and it infuriated the Marine Corps.
A senior Marine official told McClatchy that after that decision, the Marines were determined that one of their own would earn a Medal of Honor by the time Commandant James T. Conway retired in 2010. The official described Peralta's case as a learning experience that the Marines didn't want repeated.
The frustration may have prompted Conway's successor, Gen. James F. Amos, to breach Pentagon guidelines against "premature disclosure" of information about Medal of Honor nominations. During a visit to Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Nov. 6, 2010, Amos announced that Conway had approved a living Marine for the decoration. While he withheld the name, the Marine Corps Times identified the Marine as Meyer two days later.
Amos said he was moved to tears when he read Meyer's citation, according to the Times. "I read it cover to cover, and it watered my eyes," he was quoted as saying.
Conway's approval came before he retired on Oct. 22, 2010, eight months after witnesses to Meyer's acts were interviewed. Marine Corps guidelines allow up to five years from the time of the incident for which the Medal of Honor is awarded to investigate and approve the nomination.
A Medal of Honor nomination for Swenson, who's since left the Army, was submitted in December 2009 — months before Meyer's — but it remains under review after being lost for 19 months, according to the Army. The account of the battle in Swenson's nomination is sharply at odds with the Marines' account of Meyer's deeds, McClatchy learned.
Swenson — a 33-year-old Seattle native nominated to be the first living Army officer to earn the Medal of Honor in the Iraq and Afghan wars — declined to be interviewed.
Dancing Goat II
McClatchy's findings are based primarily on statements by participants in the battle that were taken under oath in two official investigations, known in military parlance as 15-6 investigations, and the sworn statements that many of the same witnesses submitted voluntarily in support of Meyer's nomination. This article also relies on copies McClatchy obtained of the Army's draft citation and account of Swenson's actions from his medal nomination.
The battle in Ganjgal — a redoubt of stone and rock-hard mud in Kunar province — began as a goodwill mission by Afghan troops and their American trainers. It erupted into some seven hours of searing combat that produced two Medal of Honor nominations, two Navy Crosses, eight Bronze Stars and nine Purple Hearts.
Five Americans and 10 Afghans were killed; 22 U.S. and Afghan troops were wounded.
The battle also prompted the two 15-6 investigations that resulted in career-killing reprimands for dereliction of duty for two officers with the 10th Mountain Division, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1-32 Infantry, the Army unit responsible for the area. The officers were cited for denying repeated requests from the ambushed Americans for air and artillery support and refusing to send in troops to rescue them. The two officers told investigators they were unsure of the friendly and enemy forces' positions.
The operation, dubbed "Dancing Goat II," was part of the U.S.-backed effort to weaken the Taliban-led insurgency by promoting local aid projects.
Located at the closed end of a U-shaped valley near the border with Pakistan, Ganjgal overlooks a sweep of descending terraced fields partitioned by waist-high stone walls. The only drivable access is a rutted track that runs up a boulder-strewn wash. Afghan forces were to conduct a routine search of Ganjgal and then meet tribal elders to discuss making improvements to the local mosque in return for the establishment of a police post — a small but unequivocal statement of the village's acceptance of the Kabul government's authority.
Word of the operation, however, reached the wrong ears.
As sunlight hit the fields at 5:30 a.m., some 60 Afghan troops and 30 border police officers, nine U.S. Marine and Army trainers, and this correspondent walked into a three-sided ambush by 50 to 60 attackers. The insurgents unleashed barrages from assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and a recoilless rifle from houses, trenches, the slopes overlooking the village and a U.S.-funded school.
Three Marines — 1st Lt. Michael E. Johnson, of Virginia Beach, Va., Gunnery Sgt. Edwin W. Johnson of Columbus, Ga., and Staff Sgt. Aaron M. Kenefick of Roswell, Ga. — and a Navy corpsman, Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton of Riverbank, Calif., were trapped in a house on the edge of the village along with several Afghans. Forced out by enemy fire, the Americans and an Afghan soldier later were found dead in a trench to which they'd retreated.
The Afghan and U.S. personnel scattered for the cover of terrace walls, boulders, trenches and buildings, and fired back. Pinned down and denied artillery and air support, they began taking casualties.
About 150 yards before the house where the four Americans were trapped, Williams, five other U.S. and Afghan personnel and this correspondent dived behind a terrace wall. They later were joined by Swenson, Army Staff Sgt. Kenneth Westbrook and Swenson's translator. Westbrook, of Shiprock, N.M., was wounded and died about a month later from blood transfusion complications.
Meyer and the Mexican-born Rodriguez-Chavez were outside the valley for almost the entire 90-minute ambush, about a mile west of the village standing guard over vehicles left by the Afghan-U.S. contingent that had hiked up to Ganjgal.
'Go in ... we had injured guys in there'
The official accounts of what happened next contain so many disparities and contradictions that they tarnish the genuine valor that Meyer and others displayed.
As Obama related the story, Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez asked four times for permission to drive into the valley to help repel the attack and rescue their trapped colleagues, and "four times they were denied. It was, they were told, too dangerous."
The sworn statements, however, raise questions about that account.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez, the statements say, received no responses to their initial requests, which were being relayed to Williams, his first sergeant, Christopher Garza, and Fabayo through two Marines in an "overwatch" position on a mountaintop. Eventually, Garza sent word that they should stay put.
But later, after failing to raise Garza again, Staff Sgt. Guillermo Valadez — one of the Marines on the mountaintop — and Rodriguez-Chavez agreed that Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer should drive into the valley. Marine Corps doctrine authorized the two staff sergeants to take that initiative.
Rodriguez-Chavez said, "We raised Staff Sgt. Valadez on the radio and told him we were going in no matter what was going on; we just needed him to assist us into the valley." Valadez, he continued, "agreed with the decision taken by Cpl. Meyer and me."
Valadez recounted: "I told Staff Sgt. Rodriguez-Chavez to go in because we had injured guys in there."
In a telephone interview eight days after the battle — while he recovered in a U.S. military hospital in Germany from a concussion he'd suffered from a rocket-propelled grenade explosion — "Garza recalled that he ... called Cpl. Meyer and Staff Sgt. Rodriguez-Chavez forward to start collecting the wounded," according to a memorandum of the interview.
Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer then set out in a Humvee on the mile-long drive up toward Ganjgal, running into "a blizzard of fire" — the former behind the wheel, the latter in the turret, according to the accounts read by Obama and posted on the Marine Corps website.
"Coming upon wounded Afghan soldiers, Dakota jumped out and loaded each of the wounded into the Humvee, each time exposing himself to all that enemy fire," the president said. After driving those casualties to safety, he and Rodriguez-Chavez went "back into the inferno," Meyer again jumping out and loading up more wounded Afghans.
The medal citation read by a military aide after Obama spoke put the number of Afghans rescued on those first two runs at two dozen.
But Rodriguez-Chavez recounted in his statement for Meyer's medal nomination that the Afghans got into the vehicle themselves on both runs. He said Meyer stayed in the turret, firing a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher. Rodriguez-Chavez's marks on an accompanying satellite photograph show both runs ending just short of the ambush zone.
Seeing Afghan National Army troops trying to take cover, Rodriguez-Chavez said, "I drove up to their position, while Cpl. Meyer was providing cover fire. We saw five wounded ANA soldiers and Cpl. Meyer signaling them to get into the truck. Three ANA took the empty seats in the truck, and the other two opened the trunk and climbed into the trunk."
After dropping off the Afghans about 150 yards back down the track, the pair returned, stopping just before the first location. Four more Afghan soldiers piled into the vehicle.
The official account doesn't explain how the pair could have evacuated 24 Afghan soldiers given that no more than five people — three inside and two in the trunk — could have fit in the vehicle with Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez. A senior Marine Corps official acknowledged that the figure was misleading.
'We weren't in a battle zone anymore'
The official Marine account also credits Meyer with saving the lives of 13 U.S. Marines and soldiers.
In all, only eight Americans directly embroiled in the ambush survived: six trapped in the "kill zone" and two on a nearby ridge. Army Capt. Raymond Kaplan and Marine Cpl. Steven Norman had led a group of Afghan soldiers to an "overwatch" position on a ridge nearly a half mile southwest of the village, where they were engaged in heavy firefights with insurgents on nearby hilltops.
Five other U.S. personnel played supporting roles but were even farther away.
Valadez and Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Miller were on the mountaintop about three-quarters of a mile northwest of the village; a three-man Army sniper team was on a mountain about one and a half miles to the southwest. Their statements make clear that they made their own way back to their base after Meyer left the valley with the bodies of his four fallen comrades.
Witness statements agree that it was the long-delayed arrival of U.S. helicopters that allowed Williams' group to escape. Williams and Norman attested that Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer arrived in the valley after Kiowa Warrior helicopters had reached the scene.
One pilot, Ryan Elliott Neal, with the Palehorse squadron of the Army's 7-17th Cavalry, said in a statement recorded two weeks after the battle that after his helicopter began strafing enemy positions, "the enemy fire ceased long enough for (Williams' group) to begin moving to their southwest." Neal's rank was redacted.
The Nigerian-born Fabayo told 15-6 investigators that after a Kiowa Warrior suppressed the insurgents' fire, "we shot back a few times once in a while, but we started walking like we weren't in a battle zone anymore."
According to the narrative read by Obama, Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer saved the group by pulling their vehicle between the group and the village, "wedging (it) right into the line of fire," allowing the Americans to escape.
Rodriguez-Chavez and Fabayo referred to this maneuver in February 2010 statements that were included in Meyer's medal nomination. Their statements, however, make clear that the group already was exiting the ambush site, though the fighting continued into the midafternoon.
Finally, there is no report in any of the statements, including his own, of Meyer killing eight Taliban — the number cited on the Marine Corps website.
Miller, watching from his mountaintop position, said that as the Humvee drove up the wash, he radioed Meyer: "You have enemy at your 9 o'clock, driver's side." Valadez sent a similar warning after he saw the vehicle "get swarmed by people."
Rodriguez-Chavez recounted that Meyer quickly started firing the Humvee's .50-caliber machine gun but that the barrel couldn't be swung low enough to hit his targets. He then heard Meyer firing his M4 assault rifle.
"I saw a single enemy go down from a round hitting him in the head," Rodriguez-Chavez continued.
This incident would've had to occur while there were U.S. helicopters overhead, loosing rockets and machine guns at any insurgent target they could find. Eight Taliban leaping down the waist-high walls as they charged across the terraces toward Meyer's Humvee almost certainly would have been seen by the helicopter pilots, whose statements indicated that they were monitoring the vehicle.
Only three bodies later were retrieved from the track: those of Williams' translator and two insurgents, according to Rodriguez-Chavez' marks on the satellite photo.
If the two were among the eight insurgents whom Meyer is credited with killing, the six others would've had to have been carried off. But that would have required at least 12 fighters — two to each corpse, each probably toting a rifle — charging across the terraces and down the walls, retrieving the bodies and returning.
And all that without being blasted by the helicopters.
Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.