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By Dan Lamothe – Staff writer
Posted : Monday Aug 20, 2012 14:53:32 EDT
  WEST MILFORD, N.J. — During one of the Afghan war’s ugliest battles, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer was nearly taken prisoner at gunpoint but fended off his would-be captor by beating him to death with a baseball-sized rock, according to the Marine’s forthcoming book.

That is among several revelations in “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War.” It chronicles the disastrous Sept. 8, 2009, battle in Ganjgal, a mountainside village in Kunar province where U.S. Marines and soldiers, and their Afghan counterparts, were pinned down under fire for hours. The book, due to be released Sept. 25, is co-authored by Meyer and Bing West, a best-selling writer and former Marine infantryman.

Throughout the book, Meyer, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Individual Ready Reserve, takes aim at several targets — especially the Army officers he blames for allowing members of his team to die that day. He describes perceived flaws in the mission’s planning, outlines how officers at a nearby base refused to send help and questions why an Army captain who fought alongside him, Will Swenson, still hasn’t received any valor award despite being recommended for the Medal of Honor nearly three years ago.

Marine Corps Times obtained an advance copy of the book and met with Meyer on Aug. 7 here in New Jersey, where he was visiting friends. In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed its contents, his memories and what it’s like living in the public eye as a Medal of Honor recipient.

Foremost, “it’s a matter of capturing what happened,” Meyer said of the details included in the book. “It’s all about being held accountable for your actions in life.”

Last September, Meyer, 24, became the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the nation’s highest award for combat valor. He is credited with braving enemy fire multiple times on foot and in the gun turret of several vehicles during a frantic effort to recover four missing members of his embedded training team. He eventually found them shot to death in a hillside trench and worked alongside Swenson and other troops to remove them from the valley where they were killed.

As the battle in Ganjgal boiled over, Army officers at nearby Forward Operating Base Joyce refused to send artillery support despite repeated pleas from those in the maelstrom. At least two officers received letters of reprimand as a result, Army officials have said.

Meyer writes in the book that, as he attended to a dead Afghan soldier, Dodd Ali, he was approached by an insurgent wielding an AK-47. Meyer fired the 40mm grenade launcher attached to his M4 carbine, the round striking the fighter in the body armor at close range — without exploding, he wrote. They began wrestling, and Meyer hit the man with a rock, breaking his front teeth with one of the blows, the book says.

“We both knew it was over,” Meyer wrote. “I drew back my arm and drove the stone down, crushing his left cheekbone. He went limp. I pushed up on my knees and hit him with more force. The blow caved in the left side of his forehead. I smashed his face again and again, driven by pure primal rage.”

The incident was not described in the witness statement Meyer submitted for the subsequent investigation of the battle, his Medal of Honor citation or in the media interviews he did last year. However, the hand-to-hand combat has weighed on Meyer, he said.

“You know, what makes it so hard when I write that is you have people who question the story, of course, and that’s a part that they’re questioning,” Meyer said. “You know, I called Will Swenson, [who] was with me, and said, ‘Will, do you remember this?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t really remember it.’ I said, ‘Well, can you tell me it didn’t happen?’ And he said, ‘I can’t.’ So I’m, like, trying to figure out where it fits in at.”

What about Swenson?

The book’s release will be close to the third anniversary of the battle and the first anniversary of Meyer getting the Medal of Honor. Meyer unequivocally backs the captain’s case for the Medal of Honor in the book — and questions why the award hasn’t already been approved.

Swenson — then a member of 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kan. — was deployed to oversee the training of Afghan border police. A Ranger School graduate with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, he had participated in the planning of the mission and was assured fire support would be available if needed.

Interviewed for the investigation afterward, Swenson unloaded on the rules of engagement used in Afghanistan, the leadership of officers who didn’t send help and the second-guessing he experienced while requesting fire support, according to a copy of his witness statement.

“When I’m being second-guessed by higher or somebody that’s sitting in an air-conditioned TOC, why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?” Swenson told investigators, according to redacted documents reviewed by Marine Corps Times. “Let’s sit back and play Nintendo. I am the ground commander. I want that f—er, and I am willing to accept the consequences of that f—er.”

Meyer’s book points out that Combined Joint Task Force 82, commanded by then-Army Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, was charged with handling Swenson’s Medal of Honor packet while the investigations were ongoing in 2009. The packet “had vanished into thin air, forgotten by everybody in the chain of command,” the book said. It suggests Swenson symbolizes Ganjgal and the battle “conveyed the wrong message: failure to support advisors, failure to provide artillery support, failure to deliver timely air support, et cetera.”

Marine Gen. John Allen, now the top commander in Afghanistan, took an interest in the case last summer and eventually endorsed Swenson’s packet. It was subsequently endorsed by Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, but hasn’t yet been approved, according to the book.

Meyer wrote that he sent a letter in November to retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the senior officer on the White House National Security Council. Swenson “was the centerpiece for command and control in a raging firefight that never died down,” Meyer’s letter said, according to the book.

“Swenson controlled all the helos. He picked out targets and kept situational awareness, radioing cardinal directions and distances,” Meyer’s letter said. “Not everyone can do that when bullets are continuously hitting the side of your truck. Swenson was not the senior commander; he just took over and everyone deferred to him. To the extent that anyone was in charge on the chaotic battlefield over the course of six or seven hours, it was Captain Will Swenson.”

Swenson is credited in the advance copy of the book as a “great help and careful reader.” The captain was out of sight when Meyer killed the man with the rock, but he carried Dodd Ali’s body to the back of a Ford Ranger pickup truck he was driving and helped the exhausted Meyer get in the passenger seat, the book said.

Army officials acknowledged last year that Swenson’s initial packet was lost and that a second packet had been resubmitted. An investigation ordered by Allen determined that the first nomination packet was lost “due to failures at multiple levels in tracking and processing the award, and that high turnover of personnel and staffs in theater contributed to the problem,” said Army Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman with the International Security Assistance Force, led by Allen.

An Aug. 6 report by McClatchy Newspapers suggested Swenson’s nomination for the Medal of Honor has been approved by the Army and is awaiting review by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. As a matter of course, military officials don’t comment on pending military decorations.

Meyer said he keeps in touch with Swenson but they don’t speak frequently.

“The thing is, most of these people I didn’t know before the battle,” he said. “So now after, it’s like, the battle brings you close, but it’s not like we knew each other before, you know?”

Swenson could not be reached for comment. He left the Army in February 2011.

Calling out the Army

The failures at Ganjgal prompted two investigations. The first was headed by an Army major in the first few days after the ambush. The second, focused primarily on command post failure, was overseen by Army Col. Richard Hooker and Marine Col. James Werth in November 2009, military officials said.

Killed in the battle were Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson, 31; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30; 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. All were members of Meyer’s unit, Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out of Okinawa, Japan. About a dozen Afghan soldiers also were killed during the battle, and a U.S. soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, died the following month at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington from wounds sustained in the attack.

In February 2010, the Army announced it had determined “negligent” leadership at the battalion level contributed “directly to the loss of life” on the battlefield that day. Officers involved repeatedly refused pleas for artillery support from U.S. forces on the ground and failed to notify higher commands that they had troops in trouble, the investigation found. The officers were with Task Force Chosin, an Army unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y.

In the book, Meyer and West name two of the individuals cited: Maj. Peter Granger and Capt. Aaron Harting. Granger was 1-32’s executive officer. He was the battalion’s top officer at the time, as its commanding officer, Lt. Col. Fredrick “Mark” O’Donnell, was on leave. Harting, the battle captain in the tactical operations center when the early morning ambush was launched, was cited for failing to act quickly enough as the firefight exploded.

Neither officer could be reached for comment.

During the investigation, Granger said he did not approve the artillery request because it was unclear where friendly forces and civilians were on the battlefield. Meyer scoffs at that notion.

“For the record,” he wrote, “I think that is complete and utter bulls—.”

The book describes soldiers and Marines on the battlefield fuming at the TOC as calls for help were repeatedly denied and seemingly trivial questions were posed to troops under fire over the radio. Lt. Johnson, a member of the training team eventually wiped out, warned that if artillery rounds weren’t fired soon, “I’m gonna die,” the book said.

“We were one lone group fighting desperately to stay alive,” Meyer wrote. “The villagers weren’t our friends. This was war, and my team was on the verge of dying. Whose side was the TOC on?”

Backing Dakota

At least two other troops in Ganjgal that day back portions of Meyer’s account: Gunnery Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, Meyer’s driver on several early trips into the valley under fire, and Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Yossarian Silano, who flew on an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter over the battle.

Rodriguez-Chavez was a staff sergeant at the time and earned the Navy Cross in June 2011 in part for repeatedly driving a Humvee into the battle under fire with Meyer manning the turret. Enemy fighters swarmed their vehicle at one point, Rodriguez-Chavez told Marine Corps Times, and Meyer engaged at least one of them from the turret with an M4, unable to bring the larger machine gun to bear on them because they were so close.

Meyer left the vehicle multiple times while attempting to help wounded Afghans along the way, Rodriguez-Chavez said. The road they traveled into the valley toward Ganjgal took fire almost immediately after the two Marines decided to push forward to find their missing teammates.

“I was thinking we weren’t going to make it out,” Rodriguez-Chavez said. “I remember telling Meyer, ‘Hey brother, I don’t think we’re going to make it out of this. I think we’re going to get stuck.’ Meyer said, ‘Well, we’ll die with them,’ or ‘We’ll die trying.’ That was pretty much the attitude we both had going in.”

Rodriguez-Chavez said he and Meyer had as many as six or seven Afghans troops in their Humvee at one time while evacuating them from the battlefield. One sat in the front seat with Rodriguez-Chavez, while another two or three sat in the back seat and one or two were in the trunk area, he said.

Silano said he remembers responding to the requests for help in the Ganjgal Valley and seeing dead and wounded Afghan troops “laying everywhere.” At first, the only U.S. troops he knew about in the valley were in a single Humvee taking heavy gunfire — Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez’s.

Eventually, the troops on the ground let Silano know there were missing Americans near the village, he said. He began hovering low to the ground under fire in his Kiowa and eventually found the bodies. After marking their location electronically, he saw a “kid with a Fox call sign” — Meyer — go after them on foot.

“Here’s this kid with this radio again, and he’s out in the middle of this field,” Silano said. “There are bullets kicking up all around him, and he’s pinned down in a ditch. He’s trying to recover all these guys, and there’s no cover out there. It was amazing to watch this kid.”

Attempts to reach other Americans who fought in Ganjgal were unsuccessful. Meyer’s commanding officer in ETT 2-8, Maj. Kevin Williams, declined to comment. He has since been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Living with the medal

Meyer was wracked with guilt for months after the ambush and still struggles with it, he said. In fact, he attempted suicide in September 2010, he acknowledged for the first time in his book.

The close call came a few days after the first anniversary of the battle, Meyer told Marine Corps Times. He had been drinking at a friend’s house in Kentucky, he said, and on the way home pulled his pickup over and took from the glove compartment what he thought was a loaded Glock.

“I just remember pulling over, and it was at my buddy’s shop. He had a shop that his dad and him work out of, and I just pulled in the driveway and was like, ‘I just can’t do it anymore,’ you know?” Meyer said. “I said, ‘I’m done. I just can’t take it anymore. That’s it.’”

Meyer pulled the trigger and was shocked when it didn’t go off, he wrote in the book. He suspects someone unloaded the pistol, but declined to disclose who. He subsequently sought treatment for post-traumatic stress and is doing better now, he said. He struggled with whether to disclose it in the book, but decided to do so to show the realities of war and what he has faced.

“That right there was rock bottom,” he told Marine Corps Times. “I could never get lower than that, you know?”

Since he received the Medal of Honor, Meyer has dedicated his life to trying to make a difference, he said, and to making sure the troops killed in Ganjgal are remembered. To date, he has raised more than $1.2 million for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, and he has assisted other charities, too.

Still, Meyer said he feels like he has “antagonists” who have questioned his actions on the battlefield. One example is Jonathan Landay, a journalist with McClatchy Newspapers who was on the battlefield for part of the Ganjgal fight. He suggested in a report published in December that the Corps embellished what Meyer did in part to ensure he would become the first living Marine in decades to receive the nation’s top valor award.

Meyer said he is “sure Jon Landay is a good guy,” but chose to refer to him only as “the reporter” in his book while describing the battle.

“The way I look at it is him writing on me — good, bad, whatever he wants to write — that is a freedom that all the guys in Ganjgal died for that day. The sacrifices they paid,” Meyer said. “If he wants to use what those guys sacrificed so much for to write negative articles, and that’s how he wants to use his freedom, do it.”

Landay said he is “terribly sorry” that Meyer views him as an antagonist, but stands by his reporting.

“I am not only being a professional journalist, I am also doing this as a survivor of that battle and as a witness to deeds of heroism that I believe are being diminished by what I have established are official accounts of the battle that attribute to Dakota Meyer deeds that were embellished or did not take place,” Landay said.

Meyer also has faced an avalanche of requests for his time, celebrity and attention. People have asked him to name their children, and parents occasionally place a baby in his hands so they can take a photo of Meyer with their child. If he has appeared on TV recently, he gets stopped by strangers while eating at restaurants or at airports, he said.

In one case, Meyer said, he even declined to appear on a float during Mardi Gras with unlimited beads, which men typically toss to women who flash their breasts.

“Those,” Meyer said, “are the type of requests I turn down.”

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