Throughout human history distinguished warriors have been honored as the quintessential heroes and no discussion of heroes can pretend to be complete without including them. I’d planned to begin posting the stories of several young war heroes very soon but a news story that just broke, Marines promoted inflated story for Medal of Honor recipient, has prompted me to jump in with this commentary. What follows should be a very disturbing story to anyone who has put their life on the line in the service of their country during war. It concerns the young marine hero of a deadly Afghanistan ambush and the intrusion of politics into a process that needs to remain above reproach.
The soldier is Sgt. Dakota Meyer (then a corporal), the nation’s most recent Medal of Honor recipient. On September 15th of this year President Obama hung the medal on Meyer and read a White House-prepared narrative describing the acts of heroism performed by the young soldier two years earlier. To summarize, Obama stated that against orders, Meyer had driven into the core of the ambush, killed a number of insurgents (8, according to the Marine Corps) at close range, twice jumped from his Hum-vee machine gun turret to rescue 24 Afghan soldiers, battled to recover the bodies of 4 of his squad members, and saved the lives of 13 U.S. soldiers.
This litany of events became controversial this past Wednesday when a journalist disputed the facts and charged in a newspaper story that vital parts of the story described by the Marine Corps and Obama are “ . . . untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, according to military documents.” The reporter did not dispute that Meyer deserved the medal for his brave actions; he criticized officials for embellishing the account when it was not necessary. Such a story might ordinarily be easily dismissed, but the reporter writing the story happened to be a war correspondent embedded in Meyer’s squad at the time of the ambush. Jonathan S. Landay survived, as did Meyer and six other Americans out of the 12 caught in the ambush.
Like the Catholic Church canonizing a saint, awarding the Medal of Honor is supposed to involve a lengthy and rigorous procedure. Landay has charged that this medal was awarded in an unusually short time because Marine officials were under pressure to award more medals and to do it fast. Most recipients receive the medal posthumously, so a living medal winner like Meyer is especially valuable for public relations purposes.
Here are some of the inaccuracies listed by Landay. Meyer and his driver did not drive into the ambush against orders according to 4 sworn statements; 12 Americans were caught in the ambush and only 8 survived, so 13 men could not have been saved by Meyer; no one, even Meyer, stated he jumped from the Hum-vee; no witness stated Meyer killed more than one insurgent; and only 9 Afghans were rescued and all climbed into the vehicle on their own.
According to Landay, Marine officials who asked to remain anonymous told him the account of the action written up by Meyer’s commanding officer, Captain William Swenson, was altered in the two months between the time Obama approved the medal and the presentation ceremony. It is puzzling that Captain Swenson, himself wounded in this action and awarded a medal, as well as another man decorated for valor in this firefight, were subsequently excluded from the ceremony.
Landay charges the exaggerations and embellishments came right out of the Marine Corps’ Public Affairs Office and a 2011 book “riddled with inaccuracies” (The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan by Bing West). The reporter also goes on to say the White House is not blameless either, for it took liberties with sources and the facts in tailoring it to the needs of the day. After Landay’s story broke, the White House laid the blame for any mistakes onto the Marine Corps, and the Corps in turn put out its own spin.
Dakota Meyer became a gagged hostage of the chain of command in the medal award process. Unfortunately, he is not the only victim in this sad episode if Landay’s charges are accurate. A second victim is the medal itself. The nation’s highest military honor will then have been dishonored by politicians and Pentagon commanders, people who ask others to put their lives on the line, yet appear to have a very loose notion of honor themselves. But then we’ve seen such behavior before, and not so very long ago, during another unpopular conflict. Ask any Vietnam veteran.
Dec 14 Landay story: Marines promoted inflated story for Medal of Honor recipient
Dec 14 White House response: White House response to questions about Dakota Meyer’s Medal of Honor narrative
Dec 15 update: White House, Pentagon won’t probe Medal of Honor
Dec 15 Marine Corps response: MARINE CORPS STATEMENT ON CPL. MEYER’S MEDAL OF HONOR
In reading the Marine Corps reponse, please take into account that in the original story Landay did not fault Sgt. Meyer or question that he deserved the award, as the Marine Corps response and many others imply.