His act of selfless heroism has made him the first alive US Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
This is the story of that day, as told by President Obama himself on Sept. 15, 2011, during the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. It gives me goosebumps.—JD
Let me tell the story. I want you to imagine it's September 8, 2009, just before dawn. A patrol of Afghan forces and their American trainers is on foot, making their way up a narrow valley, heading into a village to meet with elders. And suddenly, all over the village, the lights go out. And that's when it happens. About a mile away, Dakota, who was then a corporal, and Staff Sergeant Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, could hear the ambush over the radio. It was as if the whole valley was exploding. Taliban fighters were unleashing a firestorm from the hills, from the stone houses, even from the local school.
And soon, the patrol was pinned down, taking ferocious fire from three sides. Men were being wounded and killed, and four Americans — Dakota's friends — were surrounded. Four times, Dakota and Juan asked permission to go in; four times they were denied. It was, they were told, too dangerous. But one of the teachers in his high school once said, "When you tell Dakota he can't do something, he's is going to do it." And as Dakota said of his trapped teammates, "Those were my brothers, and I couldn't just sit back and watch."
The story of what Dakota did next will be told for generations. He told Juan they were going in. Juan jumped into a Humvee and took the wheel; Dakota climbed into the turret and manned the gun. They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right. So they drove straight into a killing zone, Dakota's upper body and head exposed to a blizzard of fire from AK-47s and machine guns, from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Coming upon wounded Afghan soldiers, Dakota jumped out and loaded each of the wounded into the Humvee, each time exposing himself to all that enemy fire. They turned around and drove those wounded back to safety. Those who were there called it the most intense combat they'd ever seen. Dakota and Juan would have been forgiven for not going back in. But as Dakota says, you don't leave anyone behind.
For a second time, they went back — back into the inferno; Juan at the wheel, swerving to avoid the explosions all around them; Dakota up in the turret — when one gun jammed, grabbing another, going through gun after gun. Again they came across wounded Afghans. Again Dakota jumped out, loaded them up and brought them back to safety.
For a third time, they went back — insurgents running right up to the Humvee, Dakota fighting them off. Up ahead, a group of Americans, some wounded, were desperately trying to escape the bullets raining down. Juan wedged the Humvee right into the line of fire, using the vehicle as a shield. With Dakota on the guns, they helped those Americans back to safety as well.
For a fourth time, they went back. Dakota was now wounded in the arm. Their vehicle was riddled with bullets and shrapnel. Dakota later confessed, "I didn't think I was going to die. I knew I was." But still they pushed on, finding the wounded, delivering them to safety.
And then, for a fifth time, they went back — into the fury of that village, under fire that seemed to come from every window, every doorway, every alley. And when they finally got to those trapped Americans, Dakota jumped out. And he ran toward them. Drawing all those enemy guns on himself. Bullets kicking up the dirt all around him. He kept going until he came upon those four Americans, laying where they fell, together as one team.
Dakota and the others who had joined him knelt down, picked up their comrades and — through all those bullets, all the smoke, all the chaos — carried them out, one by one. Because, as Dakota says, "That's what you do for a brother."
Dakota says he'll accept this medal in their name. So today, we remember the husband who loved the outdoors —Lieutenant Michael Johnson. The husband and father they called "Gunny J" — Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Johnson. The determined Marine who fought to get on that team — Staff Sergeant Aaron Kenefick. The medic who gave his life tending to his teammates — Hospitalman Third Class James Layton. And a soldier wounded in that battle who never recovered — Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook.
Dakota, I know that you've grappled with the grief of that day; that you've said your efforts were somehow a "failure" because your teammates didn't come home. But as your Commander-in-Chief, and on behalf of everyone here today and all Americans, I want you to know it's quite the opposite. You did your duty, above and beyond, and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps that you love.
Because of your Honor, 36 men are alive today. Because of your Courage, four fallen American heroes came home, and — in the words of James Layton's mom — they could lay their sons to rest with dignity. Because of your Commitment — in the thick of the fight, hour after hour — a former Marine who read about your story said that you showed how "in the most desperate, final hours…our brothers and God will not forsake us." And because of your humble example, our kids — especially back in Columbia, Kentucky, in small towns all across America — they'll know that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do great things as a citizen and as a member of the American family.
Therein lies the greatest lesson of that day in the valley, and the truth that our men and women in uniform live out every day. "I was part of something bigger," Dakota has said, part of a team "that worked together, lifting each other up and working toward a common goal. Every member of our team was as important as the other." So in keeping with Dakota's wishes for this day, I want to conclude by asking now-Gunnery Sergeant Rodriguez-Chavez and all those who served with Dakota — the Marines, Army, Navy — to stand and accept thanks of a grateful nation.
Every member of our team is as important as the other. That's a lesson that we all have to remember — as citizens, and as a nation — as we meet the tests of our time, here at home and around the world.
To our Marines, to all our men and women in uniform, to our fellow Americans, let us always be faithful. And as we prepare for the reading of the citation, let me say, God bless you, Dakota. God bless our Marines and all who serve. And God bless the United States of America. Semper Fi.
Read the full transcript of the ceremony here.
Official White House photo of President Obama and Sgt Meyer having a beer by Pete Souza.
US Marines photos by Lance Cpl. Daniel Wetzel and Sgt. Jimmy D. Shea.