WASHINGTON — The desperate call crackled over the radio in the predawn darkness: A small team of American and Afghan troops were pinned down in a remote village under withering fire from three sides. A young lieutenant was begging for artillery or air support. Without it, he yelled, "we are going to die out here."
Can't be done, came the reply. It might kill civilians.
Less than a mile away, Marine Cpl. Dakota L. Meyer heard the radio exchange in agony. His buddies were dying. Four times he requested permission to go to their aid, and four times over two hours, he was denied.
Finally, Meyer, a powerfully built 21-year-old from Kentucky with a soft drawl, decided to defy his superiors. He climbed into the turret of a gun truck with a .50-caliber machine gun driven by another Marine and raced toward the battle.
On Thursday, Meyer received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, from President Barack Obama for saving the lives of 13 U.S. and 23 Afghan troops and personally killing at least eight Taliban on that day, Sept. 8, 2009. He is the first living Marine to receive the award since the Vietnam War.
Meyer stood at rigid attention in dress uniform while Obama recounted what happened that day in the Ganjigal Valley. "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."
As Obama prepared to fasten the medal around his neck, Meyer stared toward the ceiling at the back of the room, as if recalling the events of that day two years ago, a day that Meyer calls the worst of his life.
"I'd rather have all my guys here now than receive the medal," Meyer, now a construction worker back home in Kentucky, told CNN. He wears a silver bracelet engraved with the names of four comrades he could not save. He also insisted that memorial observances be held for them at the same time as his medal ceremony.
Obama said Meyer had initially refused to take his call about the award because he was working, saying, "If I don't work I don't get paid." But at Meyer's request, the president shared a beer with the former Marine on Wednesday evening outside the Oval Office.
On the day of the ambush, four U.S. members of the training team accompanied two platoons of Afghan army soldiers and border police to Ganjigal for what they thought was a meeting with village elders about providing help to reconstruct a mosque.
As they entered the village near sunrise, all the lights went out and gunfire erupted as 50 insurgents in houses and in the hills above opened fire.
It took nearly 10 minutes for the Humvee carrying Meyer and driven by Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez to navigate down a steep, dry river bed to the village at the far end of a valley. Bullets bounced off the vehicle.
For his valor, Rodriguez-Chavez, a 34-year-old who hailed originally from Acuna, Mexico, would be awarded the Navy Cross.
Seeing Afghan soldiers lying on the ground, Meyer jumped out and began carrying the wounded to the vehicle as gunfire exploded around him, the account said. After Meyer loaded five men, Rodriguez-Chavez turned the Humvee around and drove out of the village to a casualty collection point, where the wounded could be picked up by a medevac helicopter.
They switched to an undamaged Humvee and drove back to the village. Maneuvering in the river bed, Rodriguez-Chavez called out at one point that they might get stuck. "I guess we'll die with them," Meyer called back from the Humvee turret, according to the Pentagon account.
On his third trip back, Meyer was wounded in the arm.
After four trips back and forth, they still had not found four Marines. The sun was now up as Meyer decided to organize a fifth trip. This time he was joined by a Marine lieutenant and an Army captain. A Blackhawk helicopter had arrived to provide cover.
The helicopter crew informed Meyer that they had spotted what looked like four bodies in a ditch. Meyer ran to the spot and found the Americans, who were dead. "Moving out of the ditch, across the danger zone, he transported the bodies" with the assistance of the two officers, the Pentagon account said.
At the White House on Thursday, Meyer walked out into the White House's East Room with Obama and first lady Michelle Obama surrounded by 120 friends and family, including Marines and former Marines he had served with in Kunar province who had survived.
He stood stone-faced throughout Obama's speech recounting his and Rodriguez-Chavez's bravery. Obama then lifted the gold star hanging from a baby blue ribbon over Meyer's head and draped it around his neck to applause.
"Dakota, I know that you've grappled with the grief of that day; that you've said your efforts were somehow a failure because your teammates didn't come home," Obama said. "But as your commander in chief … I want you to know it's quite the opposite. You did your duty, above and beyond."