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Originally published December 14, 2011 at 7:41 PM | Page modified December 15, 2011 at 6:39 AM

Medal of Honor story inflated by the Marines

The Marine Corps promoted an inflated story for Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer, according to dozens of military documents.

McClatchy Newspapers

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Editor's note: Correspondent Jonathan S. Landay was embedded with Dakota Meyer's unit and survived the ambush that led to the former Marine's Medal of Honor.

WASHINGTON — With Dakota Meyer standing at attention in his dress uniform, sweat glistening on his forehead, President Obama extolled the former Marine corporal for the "extraordinary actions" that earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.

Obama told the White House audience Sept. 15 that Meyer had driven into the heart of an ambush in eastern Afghanistan against orders. He had killed insurgents at near-point-blank range, twice leapt from his gun turret to rescue two dozen Afghan soldiers and saved the lives of 13 U.S. service members as he fought to recover the bodies of four comrades, the president said.

There's a problem with this account: Crucial parts that the Marine Corps publicized and Obama described are untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, according to military documents.

Sworn statements by Meyer and others who participated in the battle indicate he didn't save the lives of 13 U.S. service members, leave his vehicle to scoop up 24 Afghans on his first two rescue runs or lead the final push to retrieve the four dead Americans. Moreover, it's unclear from the documents whether Meyer disobeyed orders when he entered the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009.

Statements also offer no proof the Kentucky native "personally killed at least eight Taliban insurgents," as the account on the Marine Corps website says. The driver of Meyer's vehicle attested to seeing "a single enemy go down."

Most striking: All this probably was unnecessary. Meyer, 23, by all accounts deserved his nomination. At least seven witnesses attested to heroic deeds "in the face of almost certain death."

Braving withering fire, he repeatedly returned to the ambush site with Army Capt. William Swenson, of Seattle, and others to retrieve Afghan casualties and the dead Americans. Meyer suffered a shrapnel wound in one arm and was sent home with combat-related stress. His commander, Lt. Col. Kevin Williams, commended him for acts of "conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his life ... above and beyond the call of duty."

But an assessment by this McClatchy correspondent, who was embedded with the unit and survived the ambush, found the Marines' official accounts of Meyer's deeds — retold in a book, countless news reports and on U.S. military websites — were embellished. They're marred by errors and inconsistencies, ascribe actions to Meyer that are unverified or didn't happen and create precise detail out of the jumbled recollections of the Marines, soldiers and pilots engaged in battle.

Medal pressure

The approval of Meyer's medal — in an unusually short time — came as lawmakers and active and former officers pressed for the awarding of more Medals of Honor because of the relatively few conferred in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ten have been awarded since 2001, seven posthumously.

Meyer is the first living Marine since the Vietnam War to be awarded the honor, first bestowed in 1863.

The process for awarding the medal — designed by Navy rules to leave "no margin of doubt or possibility of error" — involves reviews by commanders at every level of the nominee's chain of command and then by top Pentagon officials. Nominating papers — known as a "medal packet" — typically comprise dozens of sworn witness statements, maps, diagrams, a draft citation and a more detailed account of the deeds.

Senior Marine Corps officials conceded the pressure to award more medals, and to do it quickly. One Marine official said the service felt it deserved the decoration after having served in the toughest, most violent areas of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Marine Corps said it stands by Meyer's citation. Asked to explain individual discrepancies and embellishments, the Marines drew a distinction between the citation and the account of Meyer's deeds that the Marines constructed. They described that account as "Meyer's narrative of the sequence of events," which Marine officials said they didn't vet.

Hours before this report was published, the Marine Corps inserted a disclaimer into its official online account of Meyer's actions. The Web page now says the summary "was compiled in collaboration" with Meyer and Marine Corps Public Affairs.

Use of narrative hit

A prominent historian of military medals, Doug Sterner, expressed disbelief at the idea that the Marine Corps would publicize an account of a complex battle based solely on the recipient's recollections.

"Give me a break," Sterner said. "A recipient is responsible for writing his narrative? I have never heard of such a thing."

The Marine officials, who requested anonymity, acknowledged portions of the narrative were changed from the account Williams submitted. They said the changes occurred between July, when Obama approved Meyer's nomination, and the September ceremony. Inaccuracies were written into the citation and the narrative of Meyer's deeds, although the narrative contained far more errors and exaggerations.

The president's version drew on materials the Marine Corps provided, but it was written in the White House, the Marine officials said. There's no indication Obama knew he was narrating an embellished story to an audience of several hundred Meyer relatives, top officials, lawmakers and service members.

White House officials said Obama's remarks were based primarily on "extensive documentation provided by the Department of Defense and the Marine Corps," including testimony from Meyer and other witnesses. It also relied on news reports and a 2011 book, "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan," by Bing West. However, the book's account of the battle is riddled with inaccuracies.

Sterner said errors in citations always had haunted recipients and many Medal of Honor winners had been cited for things they didn't do. He added that mounting pressure to find a living recipient made mistakes almost inevitable."Did this man deserve the Medal of Honor? If the answer to that is yes, then the details of the citation become secondary," he said. "But we do need to keep the record as accurately as we possibly can."

The fallout could obscure Meyer's genuine acts of heroism and threaten a book contract, speaking engagements and other deals that have lifted him from the obscurity of rural Greensburg, Ky., to fortune and national renown, including famously having a beer with Obama the day before the ceremony.

Meyer declined to comment Wednesday.

McClatchy Newspapers found that the claim Meyer saved the lives of 13 Marines and U.S. soldiers couldn't be true. Twelve Americans were ambushed — including this correspondent — and of those, four were killed. (One wounded American died a month later.) Moreover, multiple sworn statements affirm McClatchy's firsthand reporting that it was the long-delayed arrival of U.S. helicopters that saved the American survivors.

Holes in the story

No statements attest to Meyer killing eight Taliban as recounted on the Marine Corps website. The driver of Meyer's vehicle, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, reported seeing Meyer kill one insurgent.

No sworn statements — including one Meyer gave to military investigators five days after the battle — refer to him leaping from the Humvee's turret to rescue 24 wounded Afghan soldiers on his first two runs into the valley. Rodriguez-Chavez attested to nine Afghan soldiers getting into the Humvee by themselves while Meyer stayed in the turret.

Four sworn statements, including Rodriguez-Chavez's, undermine the claim that he and Meyer drove into the valley against orders. And documents indicate Swenson led the final drive to retrieve the fallen Americans, taking command of Meyer's Humvee after ditching his bullet-riddled Ford Ranger. Meyer rode in the back seat.

The inflated versions of events were prepared at the Marine Corps' Public Affairs office by a special working group, an official said. The group consulted Meyer's former commander, Williams, as it drafted the citation, but it didn't confer with him for the account posted on the Marine Corps website, the official said.

The Marines excluded Williams — who was shot and wounded in the left arm and received a Bronze Star for valor — from Meyer's ceremony. Also excluded was Capt. Ademola Fabayo, who was awarded the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor, for his role in Ganjgal. Williams and Fabayo declined to be interviewed for this article.

Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.

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