WASHINGTON — On the day President Barack Obama presented Dakota Meyer with the Medal of Honor, the 23-year-old Marine veteran stood silently, medals weighing on his chest, his baby face a mixture of pride and sadness.
For Meyer, the first living Marine to get the recognition in nearly four decades, the pomp during the ceremony at the White House 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.
On Sept. 8, 2009, in a valley in mountainous northeastern Afghanistan, Meyer, then a 21-year-old corporal, repeatedly charged through enemy fire to rescue other Marines and U.S. and Afghan soldiers who'd been ambushed by insurgents.
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Meyer, firing a heavy machine gun from the turret of a gun truck, 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's senior national security correspondent, Jonathan S. Landay, who was embedded with the Marine training unit during the operation in Ganjgal, close to the Pakistani border.
The corps said Meyer's efforts in the six-hour battle saved the lives of 13 U.S. Marines and 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 Herald-Leader, a McClatchy newspaper.
The president said Thursday that Meyer represented "the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war."
"You did your duty above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps you love," Obama said.
The fact 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 Thursday on the chamber floor.
Adjusting to civilian life has been difficult, Meyer told the Lexington Herald-Leader. But he said the transition had been eased a bit by the support of family and friends in Columbia and Greensburg, Ky., the small towns in which he grew up.
He spends his days working for his cousin's construction company in Louisville, a job he's 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 Thursday's ceremony.
Meyer also is working to raise money for a scholarship program to benefit children of wounded Marines.
"I don't think they understand the sacrifices that people are giving," Meyer said.
But on Thursday, it was Meyer's turn to receive thanks for his sacrifice.
The East Room was silent as the president fastened the medal around Meyer's neck.
Then he put a hand on the young man's shoulder.
(Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed to this report.)
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