President Obama presented Dakota Meyer, 23, with the Medal of Honor on Thursday at the White House.

Share story

WASHINGTON — On the day President Obama presented Dakota Meyer with the Medal of Honor, the 23-year-old Marine veteran stood silently, medals on his chest, his baby-face a mixture of pride and sadness.

For Meyer, the first living Marine to receive the recognition in nearly four decades, the pomp during the White House ceremony was an uncomfortable moment in the limelight for a reluctant hero who looked far more at ease applauding his fellow comrades in arms than standing center stage.

So he stood there, hands folded behind his back, staring stonily ahead as the president listed exactly why the spotlight-shy Kentucky native deserved the nation’s highest military award.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Meyer received the medal used by the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. There are two other medal designs, one for the Army and one for the Air Force.

On Sept. 8, 2009, in a valley in northeastern Afghanistan, the then-21-year-old corporal repeatedly charged through enemy fire to rescue other Marines and U.S. and Afghan soldiers who had been ambushed. Meyer, firing a heavy machine gun from the turret of a gun truck against superiors’ orders and despite a shrapnel injury to one of his arms, killed at least eight insurgents, picked up wounded and dead men and provided cover that allowed his team to fight its way out of certain death, according to the Marine Corps.

He did this after an ambush that was covered by McClatchy Newspapers correspondent, Jonathan Landay, who was embedded with the unit during the operation in Ganjgal, and published a report of the account.

The Corps said Meyer’s efforts in the six-hour battle saved the lives of 13 Marines and U.S. soldiers and 23 Afghan soldiers. He was later promoted to sergeant.

Meyer said he feels like a failure. He waded into the swarm of bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire to find four friends who were pinned down, but they were dead.

“I went in there to get those guys out alive and I failed, so I think it’s more fitting to call me a failure than a hero,” Meyer told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. He wears the names of those four colleagues engraved on a silver bracelet.

The president said Meyer represented “the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war.”

“He drove straight into the line of fire with his head and upper body exposed,” Obama said, describing how Meyer and another Marine driving the Humvee went toward the sound of the guns. “They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right.”

That Meyer, who at the time of the battle was barely old enough to drink the beer he shared with Obama on Wednesday, stood onstage the next day as a symbol of what many in his generation endured was especially meaningful to those gathered for the ceremony.

“He may not think himself a hero, but his country certainly does,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.

Meyer completed his active-duty commitment in 2010 and now serves in the Inactive Ready Reserve of the Marine Corps as a sergeant. He is an infantryman and scout sniper.

Adjusting to civilian life has been difficult, Meyer told the Lexington newspaper. But he said the transition had been eased a bit by the support of family and friends.

He spends his days working for his cousin’s construction company in Louisville, a job he has poured himself into so wholeheartedly that he asked whether the president could call during a lunch break to inform him of the award.

“I do appreciate, Dakota, you taking my call,” Obama said during the ceremony.

Meyer also is working to raise money for a scholarship program to benefit children of wounded Marines.

It was Meyer’s turn to receive thanks Thursday.

The East Room was silent as the president fastened the medal around Meyer’s neck. He then put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep and the Tribune Washington bureau contributed.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.