Photo: Kieran Cuddihy via U.S. Army
WEST MILFORD, N.J. — During one of the Afghan war’s ugliest battles, Medal of honour recipient Dakota Meyer was nearly taken prisoner at gunpoint but fended off his would-be captor by beating him to death with a baseball-sized rock, according to the Marine’s forthcoming book.That is among several revelations in “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War.” It chronicles the disastrous Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Ganjgal, a mountainside village in Kunar province where U.S. Marines and soldiers, and their Afghan counterparts, were pinned down under fire for hours. The book, due to be released Sept. 25, is co-authored by Meyer and Bing West, a best-selling writer and former Marine infantryman.
Throughout the book, Meyer, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Individual Ready Reserve, takes aim at several targets — especially the Army officers he blames for allowing members of his team to die that day. He describes perceived flaws in the mission’s planning, outlines how officers at a nearby base refused to send help and questions why an Army captain who fought alongside him, Will Swenson, still hasn’t received any valor award despite being recommended for the Medal of honour nearly three years ago.
Marine Corps Times obtained an advance copy of the book and met with Meyer on Aug. 7 here in New Jersey, where he was visiting friends. In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed its contents, his memories and what it’s like living in the public eye as a Medal of honour recipient.
Foremost, “it’s a matter of capturing what happened,” Meyer said of the details included in the book. “It’s all about being held accountable for your actions in life.”
Last September, Meyer, 24, became the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the nation’s highest award for combat valor. He is credited with braving enemy fire multiple times on foot and in the gun turret of several vehicles during a frantic effort to recover four missing members of his embedded training team. He eventually found them shot to death in a hillside trench and worked alongside Swenson and other troops to remove them from the valley where they were killed.
As the battle in Ganjgal boiled over, Army officers at nearby Forward Operating Base Joyce refused to send artillery support despite repeated pleas from those in the maelstrom. At least two officers received letters of reprimand as a result, Army officials have said.
Meyer writes in the book that, as he attended to a dead Afghan soldier, Dodd Ali, he was approached by an insurgent wielding an AK-47. Meyer fired the 40mm grenade launcher attached to his M4 carbine, the round striking the fighter in the body armour at close range — without exploding, he wrote. They began wrestling, and Meyer hit the man with a rock, breaking his front teeth with one of the blows, the book says.
“We both knew it was over,” Meyer wrote. “I drew back my arm and drove the stone down, crushing his left cheekbone. He went limp. I pushed up on my knees and hit him with more force. The blow caved in the left side of his forehead. I smashed his face again and again, driven by pure primal rage.”
The book’s release will be close to the third anniversary of the battle and the first anniversary of Meyer getting the Medal of honour. Meyer unequivocally backs the Swenson’s case for the Medal of honour in the book — and questions why the award hasn’t already been approved.
Swenson — then a member of 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kan. — was deployed to oversee the training of Afghan border police. A Ranger School graduate with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, he had participated in the planning of the mission and was assured fire support would be available if needed.
Interviewed for the investigation afterward, Swenson unloaded on the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers who didn’t send help and the second-guessing he experienced while requesting fire support, according to a copy of his witness statement.
“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why (the) hell am I even out there in the first place?” Swenson told investigators, according to redacted documents reviewed by Marine Corps Times.
An Aug. 6 report by McClatchy Newspapers suggested Swenson’s nomination for the Medal of honour has been approved by the Army and is awaiting review by defence Secretary Leon Panetta. As a matter of course, military officials don’t comment on pending military decorations.
Swenson could not be reached for comment. He left the Army in February 2011.
Killed in the battle were Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. All were members of Meyer’s unit, Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan. About a dozen Afghan soldiers also were killed during the battle, and a U.S. soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, died the following month at Walter Reed Army Medical centre in Washington from wounds sustained in the attack.
In February 2010, the Army announced it had determined “negligent” leadership at the battalion level contributed “directly to the loss of life” on the battlefield that day. Officers involved repeatedly refused pleas for artillery support from U.S. forces on the ground and failed to notify higher commands that they had troops in trouble, the investigation found.
Living with the medal(AT)
Meyer was wracked with guilt for months after the ambush and still struggles with it, he said. In fact, he attempted suicide in September 2010, he acknowledged for the first time in his book.
He subsequently sought treatment for post-traumatic stress and is doing better now, he said. He struggled with whether to disclose it in the book, but decided to do so to show the realities of war and what he has faced.
“That right there was rock bottom,” he told Marine Corps Times. “I could never get lower than that, you know?”
Since he received the Medal of honour, Meyer has dedicated his life to trying to make a difference, he said, and to making sure the troops killed in Ganjgal are remembered. To date, he has raised more than $1.2 million for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, and he has assisted other charities, too.
Meyer has faced an avalanche of requests for his time, celebrity and attention. People have asked him to name their children, and parents occasionally place a baby in his hands so they can take a photo of Meyer with their child. If he has appeared on TV recently, he gets stopped by strangers while eating at restaurants or at airports, he said.
In one case, Meyer said, he even declined to appear on a float during Mardi Gras with unlimited beads, which men typically toss to women who flash their breasts.
“Those,” Meyer said, “are the type of requests I turn down.”
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