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The reluctant hero

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to former Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, 23, from Greensburg, Ky., Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Meyer was in Afghanistan's Kunar province in Sept. 2009 when he repeatedly ran through enemy fire to recover the bodies of fellow American troops. He is the first living Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

On 15th September 2011, Dakota Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor – America’s equivalent to the rare and prestigious Victoria Cross – for his actions in Afghanistan, becoming the first living United States Marine in 38 years to receive the honour. At just 23 years old, the former Marine was suddenly on the front page of every newspaper in the country, shaking hands with the president: just weeks earlier, he had been pouring concrete on a construction site in Kentucky.

“I’d been out of the Marine Corps for a year when they called. I was trying to move on to a new chapter in my life,” says Meyer. “To suddenly be in every paper and on every TV show – it was crazy.” When Meyer first got the call from Barack Obama’s assistant, he politely informed her that the president would have to call him back on his lunch break. “I was at work – I couldn’t just sit there and take a break. I was hard up for money. But I put it on speakerphone when he called,” he grins. “All my work buddies listened. They were freaking out.”

It’s no surprise that the media paid him such attention. The Medal of Honor is not given lightly and all too often it is a medal awarded posthumously: 57 percent of awards for the war in Afghanistan and 100 percent of those for the Iraq War were made posthumously. And Meyer’s story in particular was sensational. On 8th September 2009 – when he was just 21 – his team walked into an ambush outside Ganjgal village, in Kunar Province. Despite being heavily outnumbered and bombarded with machine gun and rocket fire, Meyer raced into the kill zone four times, searching for the four other members of his team. Over the course of a six-hour firefight, he personally rescued 12 wounded friendlies, provided cover for 24 other soldiers to escape and killed at least eight insurgents. Although, tragically, he was unable to prevent the death of his four friends, he refused to retreat until he had recovered their bodies. By anyone’s standards, his actions were beyond heroic, although Meyer finds it difficult to see it that way.

“People think we’re monsters. One TV personality actually said that – he called us monsters. They think that because you go over and you see war, you come back crazy”

“If I was a hero, my guys would be here today, and they’re not. In the Marine Corps, you believe that you either get them out, or you die trying. You didn’t die trying? Then you didn’t try hard enough. When I was being awarded the medal, all I could think was, ‘This sucks.’ I hated it. I didn’t want the medal. I was just thinking about my guys the whole time I was up there.”

To this day, Meyer wears the names of his fallen comrades on metal bracelets around his wrists. They’re a constant reminder of what he describes as the worst day of his life, but they’re also a motivation to keep going.

“Any time I start doing something dumb, or start getting down on myself, I remember I’ve got four reasons to push on,” he says, grimly. “Because they didn’t get a chance to.” Not long after receiving the medal, Meyer had a falling out with his new employer, defence contractor BAE Systems. It began when Meyer expressed his anger at what he alleged was their attempt to sell rifle scopes to Pakistan. After resigning, Meyer then brought a lawsuit against a supervisor at BAE who, he alleged, had told a hiring manager at another company that Meyer was mentally unstable and unable to perform his job, as well as implying that he had issues with alcohol. The resulting lawsuit was settled out of court, but the experience has clearly been a bitter one for Meyer.

“The only thing I’m allowed to say is that we settled our differences amicably,” he says, grimacing. It’s clear that he’s not able to discuss specifics, although he does elaborate on his original worries about arms being sold to Pakistan. “The guys we were fighting were Pakistan-trained,” he says. “I believe that the difference between Pakistan military and the Taliban is which side of the border they’re on.”

On top of the public embarrassment for Meyer following the BAE episode, one of the more distressing aspects, he soon discovered, was just how willing the general public is to believe a story of this kind when it concerns a veteran.

“People think we’re monsters. One TV personality actually said that – he called us monsters. They think that because you go over and you see war, you come back crazy. That ain’t how it is. There’s a really negative stigma – everybody thinks you’ve got PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even if you do have PTSD, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy! I spoke out for a veteran’s hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, and some of the local people didn’t want it there in their backyard – I told them, this isn’t like putting a Target or a Wal-Mart in your backyard. This should be a national treasure to you.”

Despite being a topic that’s edged its way more firmly into the public consciousness in recent years, PTSD is not an issue that Meyer feels comfortable publicly associating himself with at present.

“I support the guys that have it, and I hope they can get help and fix it. But I can’t really speak on it because I’m not educated enough. You should never speak on something you’re not educated on. That’s what gets everybody messed up in the first place in America – ‘Let’s go out there and talk about something I have no idea about.’”

Just one day before the public announcement that Meyer and BAE had come to terms, he was struck another blow when journalist Jonathan S Landay, who had been embedded with his unit, wrote an article claiming there were inaccuracies in the report that led to Meyer receiving the Medal of Honor. When asked about these claims, Meyer just shakes his head in amazement.

“I don’t know the exact numbers – it’s not like I had a clicker, going, ‘Okay, that’s three guys.’ It’s not a game where you keep stats, which is what [Landay] doesn’t understand. But I’ve had plenty of time to think about it and I don’t doubt anything that happened that day. The funny part to me is, if you look at my interviews, I’ve always said that I’m no hero. So why does he want to tell people I’m not a hero? That’s what I’ve always said! At the end of the day, Jon Landay can write whatever the hell he wants to, because I know that my guys died for that freedom. That’s why we go fight – so he has the freedom to write his dumb shit.”

Although the story failed to gain real traction – with even Landay himself acknowledging that Meyer still deserved the medal regardless – it was another sign to Meyer that going back to normal life was an impossibility.

“You can’t just be a 23 year old any more. They’re watching you. When you’re a sniper, you don’t go looking for notoriety. We actually have a game we play, called ‘Compromised’. So if you end up in the newspaper or something like that, you’re compromised and you gotta buy everybody else a beer. So I talked to my buddies the other day and I’m like, ‘I’m in debt to you all forever…’”

Although he’s had his share of bad experiences since receiving the medal, it has also opened up a lot of new opportunities. As well as recently being given the title of Kentucky Colonel in his hometown of Greensburg, Meyer serves as the official military advisor for Maxim magazine and spends most of his time on the road, doing speaking engagements for a wide variety of companies.

“I would give anything to go back and serve, but it ain’t gonna happen. I begged, but they won’t let me do it”

“It all revolves around teamwork and leadership, but I hope I’m also spreading awareness,” he says. Returning to civilian life has been a steep learning curve, but his experiences in Afghanistan have proved to be invaluable to him.

“I learned this from Afghanistan, but I had to apply it more here: always keep an open mind. When people look at somebody and say, ‘Well, you’re a Muslim so we don’t like you’ – that’s the dumbest shit I ever heard in my life. That’s just ignorance. It could just be skin colour or financial status – it shouldn’t matter, but people are so fast to judge each other. Could you imagine if I suddenly announced, just as an example, that I was a gay Muslim? What would happen? I’d still be the same person, but all of a sudden their views would have changed, because we’re closed-minded as people.”

It’s a feeling that’s just become stronger to Meyer, the longer he’s been in the public eye.

“I was happy when we killed Osama Bin Laden, but to see everybody chanting in the streets like that, it made me sick. You know what it reminded me of? When they’re burning our flags after doing that shit to us. We’re supposed to be bigger than that, we’re supposed to set an example. You don’t go out into the streets and rant and rave like that over killing somebody. That was horrible. I was embarrassed.”

There is no question in Meyer’s mind that his life has been made harder by the honour he’s received. Not least among his regrets is that he’ll never be allowed back into combat.

“I would give anything to go back and serve, but it ain’t gonna happen. I begged, but they won’t let me do it because they don’t want a Medal of Honor recipient to get killed. But I can’t be selfish – I can go out and make a difference. The thing that keeps me going is knowing that my guys didn’t get the chance to push on. It’s a huge weight on your shoulders, but when you’ve got kids looking up at you, you can’t fuck that up. What example does that set for them? They need an example.”

He also believes that, despite the waning public support, the coalition has done good work in Afghanistan, although he acknowledges that the definition of “good” is a little fuzzy.

“Americans want to see us win a war. What in a war would you consider a win? It’s kind of like a fistfight – if both people get hit in the face, I don’t really see a winner either way. There’s no first-place trophy at the end of war, everybody loses in the end. But there hasn’t been another 9/11 since we’ve been there – we’ve done huge damage to [the terrorist networks]. And if there hasn’t been another terrorist attack in America since we’ve been there, then I think we’re winning.”

It’s been a whirlwind year for Meyer, and while he can’t even begin to predict where it will take him next, it’s obvious that there’s some way to go before he fully accepts his new role in life – that of a living inspiration, rather than a sacrifice.

“I’m glad to be alive. I’m definitely in a good spot and I cherish my life, but… look, when you’re a gunfighter, there’s nothing more honorable that could ever happen to you than to die in your boots in a fucking gunfight.” He looks up with a rueful smile. “Now, that opportunity is gone and it’s never going to happen. So what am I going to die for now?”

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