There are a few things you need to know about the young man who will tomorrow be awarded the nation’s highest decoration for valor for saving the lives of 13 U.S. troops and 23 Afghan soldiers in an enemy ambush two years ago in the Ganjgal Valley.
Tomorrow at the White House the former Marine sergeant will become the 10th Medal of Honor Recipient of this war and one of three who lived to wear the distinctive medal suspended on a pale blue neck ribbon.
He will bring to 85 the number of living Recipients; the current living Recipients are distributed as follows: WWII — 14, Korea — 13, Vietnam — 55, War on Terror — 2.
I’ll get to then-corporal Meyer’s heroic actions in a moment, but first let’s look back at a 17-year-old headstrong kid and indifferent student and 5-foot-11, 225-pound line-backer and running back for his Pennsylvania high school football team.
“Teachers were impressed by his intelligence, but Meyer’s strong will and independence often would frustrate them,” his coach Mike Griffiths told USA Today. “He is going to size you up; he’s going to know … how far he can push the envelope.”
But Meyer also volunteered as a peer tutor for special-needs students and worked on his father’s farm.
In his senior year Meyer went up to a Marine recruiter out of curiosity, and as they talked, Meyer told him about his plans to play college football somewhere.
The recruiter told him that was a good plan because “there’s no way you could be a Marine.”
Meyer walked away but quickly returned.
“You pick up your stuff right now,” Meyer told the
recruiter. “Let’s go sign the papers.”
Meyer turned 18 at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, chose to serve in the infantry after basic training and later trained as a sniper.
“I didn’t want to join the Marine Corps and have a job that I could have as a civilian,” Meyer said.
Rising to team leader and NCO, Meyer was about to return to Iraq for a second tour when an opportunity to go to Afghanistan arose. The action in Iraq was winding down.
He opted for Afghanistan.
And it was there he experienced “the worst day of my life” and entered the nation’s history. Read the rest of the USAToday article here.
(For additional photos of Sgt. Meyer go here.)
‘He had a bad feeling’
Ganjgal Valley is a narrow gorge with a dirt road running through it and walls of rock-strewn peaks rising up on both sides. Villagers live in mud-walled homes that cling to the hillsides. The valley is surrounded by terraced fields.
Meyer was 21 in the fall of 2009, part of a small team of advisers attached to an Afghan army battalion operating in Kunar province, a remote and mountainous region that borders Pakistan.
The mission on Sept. 8 was straightforward.
The Afghan battalion would go to the village to meet with elders who had indicated they were willing to switch allegiance and turn on the Taliban, the Muslim clerical movement ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led
invasion after it refused to turn over Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11
This was hopeful news for U.S. and Afghan forces. In 2009, the Taliban had free rein in parts of Kunar province, and Afghan commanders were eager to win over tribes and villages.
The plan was for the Afghan battalion to leave base before the sun came up and arrive at the village before first light. They would talk to the elders about renovating a mosque and see whether there were other projects the government could help with.
A U.S. quick-reaction force would be on standby, and an observation post would be established to keep an eye on the battalion as it moved down the valley toward the village. Snipers would be positioned to fire into the valley if needed.
Aircraft were not assigned directly to the mission, but teams were told attack planes or helicopters could respond quickly if needed.
“They said if we were to get into a firefight or an ambush, we’d get it (air support) right away, within 10 minutes,” Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Afghan commanders weren’t expecting a fight. It was a “key leader engagement” — not a major offensive. Intelligence suggested the battalion would receive only “light harassing fire” by up to 10 insurgents, according to a military investigation of the events that day. That was standard for Kunar province.
The Afghan troops and their U.S. advisers left Forward Operating Base Joyce around 2 a.m. According to the plan, Meyer was to stay with the vehicles near the mouth of the valley. The Afghan soldiers and their U.S. advisers would walk into the village from there.
Meyer didn’t like the idea of being separated from his team. “He wasn’t comfortable letting his team go in without him,” Rodriguez-Chavez said. “He had a bad feeling.”
During a briefing before the operation, Rodriguez-Chavez and 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Meyer’s team leader, recommended that Humvees go with the team. The vehicles were armed with heavy weapons and would be useful
if the battalion were attacked, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
They were overruled. Commanders were uncertain what they would find on the road — which was little more than a dry stream bed that got worse as it approached the village — and feared the vehicles would be vulnerable
to roadside bombs, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Meyer said he waited anxiously by the vehicles as the column snaked its way toward the village. Soldiers in observation posts watched villagers preparing breakfast in the pre-dawn darkness. That wasn’t surprising. It was Ramadan, when Muslims fast throughout the day.
At 5:30 a.m., the lead of the column approached the village. The lights in the village blinked off.
All hell broke loose.
More than 50 insurgents fired from positions on mountains surrounding the valley and from within the village. It was perfect geography for an ambush: high ground with clear fields of fire. The troops were trapped.
Back at the vehicles, Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez heard the firing and could see into the valley. The volume of fire increased, and the radio traffic grew increasingly desperate.
The team was pinned down, and the only way out was to pound the militant positions with airstrikes or artillery.
Meyer’s team and others in the valley called for airstrikes. The requests were denied by staff officers in a command center who were concerned about civilian casualties and were unclear how fearsome the ambush was, according to a military investigation.
From the valley it appeared as if the entire village had joined the fight. Women were running between positions, resupplying the insurgents with ammunition. Some of the shooters were children.
Coalition command policy was to use airstrikes sparingly to avoid harming civilians, but troops in trouble were supposed to get the firepower they needed to protect themselves.
“If (you) don’t give me this air support, we are going to die out here,” Johnson yelled over the radio, according to the Marine Corps account of the battle.
The shooting was surprisingly accurate — not the typical harassment fire. These were hardened fighters in protected positions. Some wore helmets and body armor.
“We’re surrounded,” Lt. Johnson radioed. “They’re moving in on us.”
Over the radio, Taliban insurgents called on the Afghan soldiers to surrender. They refused.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez called four times to their headquarters, pleading for permission to drive into the valley to help Meyer’s team. Permission was denied. Senior advisers worried that vehicles driving into the valley would add to the chaos, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez looked at each other.
“We have to get in there,” Meyer told Rodriguez-Chavez.
Meyer recalled, “I couldn’t just sit back and watch.”
Rodriguez-Chavez jumped behind the wheel of a Humvee, and Meyer climbed into the turret, manning a grenade launcher. They headed down the valley and straight into the fight.
Bullets pinged off the turret; mortar shells landed around them, and rocket-propelled grenades streaked past.
Meyer fired furiously in all directions as the Humvee bounced along the rutted dirt road.
They came upon Afghan soldiers, some wounded, staggering out of the valley. Meyer got out and put five of them in the vehicle. Others were cut down as they ran for the Humvee. The Marines drove back to a safe spot, let their passengers out and headed back in.
An Afghan senior non-commissioned officer warned them that going back would be suicide, Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez, then a staff sergeant, returned to the valley repeatedly, firing at insurgents, retrieving wounded and pulling out bodies. Rodriguez-Chavez would barely slow the vehicle, and Meyer would jump
out to rescue survivors.
At one point, Meyer dropped from the turret, falling into the vehicle. Rodriguez-Chavez assumed he was dead.
“I’m OK, I’m OK,” Meyer yelled and got back behind the gun, blood gushing from his right arm as he resumed firing.
His weapon jammed, so the two Marines went back to get another Humvee, this one with a .50-caliber machine gun. Rodriguez-Chavez warned that the vehicle might get stuck on the barely passable dirt track as they drove deeper into the valley.
“I guess we’ll die with them,” Meyer replied.
Back in the valley, an insurgent got within a couple of feet of the driver’s side of the Humvee, startling Rodriquez-Chavez. Meyer aimed his M-4 rifle and shot the insurgent in the head.
After four trips, Meyer had not found his team. Together with Marine 1st Lt. Ademola Fabayo and Army Capt. William Swenson, Meyer and
Rodriguez-Chavez headed back into the valley a fifth time. At that point, they
were an easy and expected target. It was as though every gun in the valley was
turned on the vulnerable Humvee.
By this time, helicopters were buzzing the area, helping Meyer search for the missing team.
The helicopter crew saw what appeared to be four bodies just west of the village and radioed to the men on the ground searching. The helicopter couldn’t land, so its crew dropped a smoke grenade marking the position.
Meyer bolted from the Humvee and ran toward the smoke. Insurgents trained their weapons on him. Rodriguez-Chavez, still behind the wheel, thought it would be the last time he saw Meyer.
Ten minutes later, Meyer was back.
“They’re all dead,” Meyer told Rodriguez-Chavez. “Every single one of them.”
The team — Marines 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; Gunnery
Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; and Navy Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22 — appeared to have been killed by insurgents who had sneaked up on them, according to the military investigation, the results of which were released by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The men were in a ditch where they had sought cover. Kenefick was clutching a GPS. Layton had been treating his lieutenant, who had a shoulder wound. Gunnery Sgt. Johnson had been keeping an eye out for the enemy.
It appeared they had spent all or most of their ammunition trying to defend themselves, given they were found with empty magazines. Their bodies had been stripped of their weapons and radios, according to the investigation.
Meyer carried the bodies out of the valley.
Two Army officers who worked in the combat operations center were reprimanded later for not taking immediate action to provide the
teams with air support, according to Jones’ office. The report found an
atmosphere of complacency in the combat operations center.
‘He doesn’t see himself as a hero’
Rodriguez-Chavez, 34, now a gunnery sergeant, and Fabayo, now a captain, were awarded Navy Crosses, the nation’s second-highest medal for valor.
Meyer, who later was promoted to sergeant, has left active
duty and returned to Kentucky. He works as a concrete contractor with a cousin.
Meyer is not sure about his future. At various times, he considered a career in the Marines, but eventually he decided to leave active duty.
“I just thought that chapter of my life is over with,” Meyer said.
Except for a final page, when he will be drawn into the spotlight next week and President Obama will place the Medal of Honor around his neck to mark a day that still fills Meyer with remorse.
“He doesn’t see himself as a hero,” Coach Griffiths said. “He felt like he had let his team down.”
Meyer appears to be uncomfortable with interviews and the publicity, but he says he endures them to honor the men killed in Ganjgal Valley and the troops still fighting in Afghanistan.
“It’s kind of frustrating because everyone wants to get an interview about the worst day of your life,” Meyer said. “At the end of the day, I do it because I think it needs to be told.”