On Sept. 8, 2009, a 21-year-old U.S. Marine corporal named Dakota Meyer dove head-first into hell – and nearly got killed – trying to rescue some friends who had been ambushed in a small village in Afghanistan’s dangerous Ganjigal Valley.
Ignoring orders from superiors, with bullets whizzing all around him, Meyer plunged five times into the village, desperately trying to save a team of trapped American and Afghan fighters. He saved 36 American and Afghan soldiers, but wasn’t able to save five of the men, including Amherst native Aaron M. Kenefick, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant.
Last year, President Obama gave Meyer the nation’s highest military award for bravery, the Medal of Honor. He was the first Marine to receive the award since the Vietnam War.
“The story of what Dakota did ... will be told for generations,” the president said.
Meyer even got to sit outside the White House and drink a beer with the president, setting up a photo opportunity that drew media attention all over America. For awhile after that, Dakota Meyer was treated like the military equivalent of a rock star.
But now, Meyer wants more.
He wants answers.
His story makes for one disturbing read, a painful tale that will be very unsettling to those who believe without question that America’s military is far superior to any other in the world.
Like many of the men who fought in the Ganjigal Valley that day, and like Kenefick’s grieving mom, Susan Price, Meyer wants to know why the Americans who were trapped in the village didn’t get the help they needed from Army commanders at a nearby tactical operations center.
He wants to know why, again and again, frantic requests for air support or artillery support from Kenefick and other servicemen were refused. He also wants to know why a couple of his battle buddies who also took huge risks to save lives that day have not received the same honors he got.
“My team would be alive today if we’d gotten artillery [support,],” Meyers writes at one point in his book “We were screwed.”
Meyer is not alone in that belief. Some of the command officers involved in the Ganjigal Valley fiasco were sharply criticized in a Defense Department report on the incident, issued in 2010.
“[The] actions of key leaders at the battalion level were inadequate and ineffective, contributing directly to the loss of life,” the Defense Department concluded in its 500-page report.
But the Defense Department has never explained why command officers refused to supply needed backup to the men who walked into an ambush.
Meyer thinks he knows why. He writes that, in his opinion, command officers were paralyzed by fears that, if they fired artillery at the Afghan village, there would be many civilian casualties. He notes that the ambush happened shortly after the military’s high command had directed officers to be more cautious about unleashing air strikes or firing explosives in areas where civilians could be hurt.
“The directive from the high command was clear: do not employ ‘air-to-ground or indirect fires against residential compounds ... unless the ground force commander has verified that no civilians are present,’ ” Meyer writes.
Meyer voices strong disagreement with that policy. But his opinion about the tragic deaths of Kenefick, 1st Lt. Michael Johnson and Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson of the Marines; Navy Hospital Corpsman James Layton and Army Sgt. First Class Kenneth Westbrook is just one part of what makes this a very compelling book.
Meyer’s personal story is very interesting, and often disturbing. A Kentucky native who was a high school football star before joining the Marines, he comes off as something of a wild man in these pages.
“If I’m going to be in the Marines, I want to be in the infantry. I want to fight, not sit behind a desk,” Meyer told the recruiter who signed him up at age 17.
Worried that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would end before he got a chance to take part in battles, Meyer said he signed up for sniper training because “it would improve my odds of getting into the fight.”
He wound up serving with Kenefick and others in Afghanistan, at a squalid, depressing little camp called Combat Outpost Monti. While stationed there, his unit was assigned to travel to the little village of Ganjigal, where they were to meet with some village elders who reportedly were willing to provide information about the Taliban.
The meeting turned out to be a violent ambush, when they came under attack from Taliban fighters who by far outnumbered the Americans and Afghan soldiers.
Kenefick, who comes off in the book as a tough, smart Marine leader, was in the lead group facing the worst of the attack.
“I can’t shoot back ... because I’m pinned down,” Kenefick radioed from the battle scene. “They’re shootin’ at me from the house, and it’s so close.
“If you don’t give me [artillery] support, I’m gonna die,” radioed Lt. Johnson, who was with Kenefick.
Meyer and his driver, Sgt. Juan Rodriquez-Chavez, were supposed to stay in a rear support position, and were repeatedly ordered not to go into the village to rescue their friends. They disobeyed orders and went storming in with their armored vehicle.
The bullet-by-bullet story of the battle, Meyer’s efforts to save his friends, and the finding of their bodies, is very intense.
“Strange though it may seem, I wasn’t scared or angry. I was beyond that,” Meyer writes. “I didn’t think I was going to die; I knew I was dead ... I wasn’t a thinking human being. I had gone somewhere else ... I was the machine gun.”
In one of the craziest scenes of the book, Meyer says he killed a Taliban with a baseball-size rock, smashing the man’s face again and again “driven by pure primal rage” until his skull caved in.
He and Rodriquez-Chavez managed to save three dozen men, but Meyer was crestfallen when he learned that Kenefick and four other Americans were dead.
Despite all the military honors and accolades he’s received for his efforts that day, Meyer cannot shake the feeling that he let them down.
After treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome, he finished his tour with the Marines, moved back to Kentucky and began drinking heavily. One night in spring of 2010, he spent a long night drinking Jack Daniel’s whiskey and found himself parking his pickup truck in a friend’s driveway and pulling a Glock handgun out of his glove box.
He texted a brief message to some friends – “I can’t do it anymore” – put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. Fortunately, the gun was not loaded. Meyer said he realized then that killing himself would only disappoint the men he tried to save.
Meyer is doing better these days, but as he looks back on his experience, it’s all very bittersweet.
“When the president hung that medal around my neck, I felt glum. I couldn’t smile and I said nothing,” he recalls. “As a Marine, you either bring your team home, or you die trying. My country was recognizing me for being a failure, and for the worst day of my life.”
Susan Price, who was one of the first to read Meyer’s book, said she truly appreciates Meyer’s efforts to rescue her son.
“He was one of many heroes that day,” Price recently told The Buffalo News. “I believe that Dakota was divinely protected so he could get this story out.”
Into The Fire
by Dakota Meyer and Bing West
239 pages; $27
Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and the co-author (with Lou Michel) of “American Terrorist.”