By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. For this article, there is only one song that will do: the Marines’ Hymn of the United States Marine Corps with its revered and unmistakable opening line, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”.
Given that it’s one of the signature songs of the nation surprisingly little is known about it. The music is from the “Gendarmes’ Duet” from an 1867 revision of the 1859 opera “Genevieve de Brabant” by Jacques Offenbach, the man who wrote the music for the scandalous “Can, can.” The lyrics are more obscure because there is no known 19th century version. Legend has it that it was penned by a Marine on duty during the Mexican war (1846-1848), hence “From the halls of Montezuma…”
On September 15, 2011 at a White House ceremony presided over by President Obama it will be played with the pride and flourishes it has earned for Dakota Meyer, the man fate allowed to serve instead of die… and whose selfless heroism embodies the best of the nation… at a time when America needs to be reminded of who we are, how we got here, and the people and characteristics we need to carry the great Republic forward….
“Operation Enduring Freedom,” part of the Afghan War which promised much, and delivered little.
Every once in a while, the nation remembers it is at war, first in Iraq, then, very much an afterthought, in Afghanistan, where warfare is the biggest part of its history, economy and past, present and, one sadly concludes, future. Afghanistan is simply a cauldron where the many elements of unending instability and war are blended together to create a noisome, noxious vintage. It is a place no sensible person wishes to go… and where the words “Operation Enduring Freedom” are nothing so much as high irony, grand but unobtainable objectives, a cruel hoax. Into this unforgiving land, Dakota Meyer came to make history.
The date was September 8, 2009.
It was another hazardous day in hazardous Kunar province where Meyer was serving with Embedded Training Team 2-8. There was news… and it was bad, the kind of news no Marine wants to hear and which he instinctively wants to do something about: a group of insurgents had attacked with savage results. Three U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman were missing.
Dakota Meyer didn’t have to think about what to do… he knew. His responsibility was to rescue his brothers… any other action was unthinkable. Marines help Marines. And that was what he and his combat team set out to do as they moved forward to find and engage the enemy.
Let us recreate the circumstances of that fateful day…
As the combat team moved forward it was hit by intense fire from roughly 50 Taliban insurgents dug-in and concealed on the slopes of Ganjgal village. They had to be removed to accomplish the rescue mission.
Meyer, trained for such an event, mounted a gun-truck, enlisted a fellow Marine to drive, and raced to attack the ambushers and aid the trapped Marines and some Afghan soldiers, too. What ensued was a six-hour fire fight in which Corporal Meyer called upon every feature of brain and body. The Taliban was determined Corporal Meyer would not advance… he was equally determined that he would. The result was war, war in all its brutalities, in all its unpredictabilities, its confusions, and unexpected developments, war to the death between wary opponents who respected each other’s capabilities and meant to have victory… whatever must be done.
Yes, Dakota Meyer meant to go forward… And his determination to do so changed dozens of lives, not least his own. He had brothers to rescue and nothing, absolutely nothing was going to stand in the way of getting to them and bringing them back. Absolutely nothing.
As he moved forward, inexorably forward, he changed lives. He saved 36 Marines and Afghan soldiers that day before he found the bodies of his 4 brothers. To get to them he performed deeds prodigious, sublime, unimaginable. Alone, he charged into the heart of a deadly U-shaped Taliban ambush.
But not just once… not twice… not even three times… but he went into this vortex of mayhem and death four times. What drives at man so, when such a forward policy could, in an instant, send him into eternity and his mangled body home to grieving parents and relations? What drives a man at such a moment, when all the joys and pleasures of a young life could end in an instant?
He was insistent, determined that his brothers, or whatever was left of them, should not be mutilated, humiliated, and left to rot in the inhospitable soil of this supremely inhospitable land. He did not think of death… or valor…. or heroism. He thought of brothers, of buddies, young men as young as he, just a moment ago bursting with hijinx and wise-cracking humor… now face down in their own blood and the dust of Afghanistan. These brothers, spirits now, called out to Dakota Meyer… and they did not call out in vain.
Charging alone into the enraged, determined Taliban he focused on his mission… beyond thoughts of death. At such a moment, facing fearsome odds, a man becomes so certain he will die that a profound liberation occurs… because death is likely, he means to exact a terrible price on the enemy… and he finds hitherto unknown strengths and abilities which he is determined should be fully used with deadly effect.
Meyer killed 8 Taliban!
Meyer personally evacuated 12 friendly wounded!
Meyer provided cover for another 24 Marines and soldiers to escape likely death at the hands of a determined and numerically superior foe!
On his first foray his lone vehicle drew machine gun, mortar, rocket grenade and small arms fire while he rescued five wounded soldiers.
His second attack disrupted the enemy’s ambush and he evacuated four more wounded Marines.
Switching to anther gun-truck because his was too damaged they again sped in for a third time, and as turret gunner killed several Taliban attackers at point-blank range and suppressed enemy fire so 24 Marines and soldiers could break-out.
Despite being wounded, he made a fourth attack with three others to search for missing team members. Nearly surrounded and under heavy fire he dismounted the vehicle and searched house to house to recover the bodies of his fallen team members, the brothers who he valued beyond his own life and who, he knew, would have done as much for him. As any Marine would…
One of only 86 people to receive the Medal of Honor while still living.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military award. It represents the highest standard of courage, boldness, and valor. Only 86 living people have received it and the last Marine to do so was Sgt. Maj. Allan Kellogg, Jr. in 1973 for gallantry in Vietnam.
Meyer, modest, polite, affable, makes it clear that he is no hero, just a Marine doing his best for his brothers… but we are not circumscribed in what we may say about this man who, by any reckoning, should have died that day a dozen times in Ganjgal…. but who instead delivered life to many colleagues without thought of his own. It is fitting and proper to award such a rare and prestigious award to such as Dakota Meyer… a man who, so young, reminds America that great deeds are conceived in selflessness and sacrifice. God shed his grace on thee, Dakota Meyer. You remind us all of what we each must do to ensure He sheds it still on all of us and our great exercise of freedom, now challenged on all sides.