Crucial parts of Medal of Honor winner Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer’s memoir were untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, as were the Marine Corps and White House accounts of a 2009 battle in Afghanistan.
By Jonathan S. Landay
WASHINGTON (AP)— In his memoir of the 2009 battle in Afghanistan that
brought him the Medal of Honor, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer describes how
he reflexively switched from his machine gun to his rifle and back to
his machine gun as he mowed down a swarm of charging Taliban from the
“My mind was completely blank. I fired so many thousands of rounds I
didn’t think what I was doing,” Meyer, then a corporal, wrote in his
2012 book, “Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary
Battle in the Afghan War.”
But videos shot by Army medevac helicopter crewmen show no Taliban in
that vicinity or anywhere else on the floor of the Ganjgal Valley at
the time and location of the “swarm.” The videos also conflict with the
version of the incident in Marine Corps and White House accounts of how
Meyer, now 25, of Columbia, Ky., came to be awarded the nation’s highest
military decoration for gallantry.
The videos add to the findings of an ongoing McClatchy investigation
that determined that crucial parts of Meyer’s memoir were untrue,
unsubstantiated or exaggerated, as were the Marine Corps and White House
accounts of how he helped extract casualties from the valley under
fire. The White House and Marine Corps have defended the accuracy of
their accounts of Meyer’s actions. The Marine Corps declined to comment
on the videos.
Army National Guard Sgt. Kevin Duerst, the helicopter crew chief
whose helmet camera recorded one of the videos, confirmed the absence of
insurgents on the valley floor as the aircraft flew in on a first run
to retrieve casualties.
“We totally flew over everything. … There was nothing going on down
there,” Duerst said in a telephone interview Friday. “There was no
serious gunfight going on.”
Former Army Capt. William Swenson, who’s to receive a Medal of Honor
from President Obama on Tuesday for gallantry in the same battle,
declined in an interview Sunday to directly address questions about the
purported swarming of Meyer’s vehicle.
But, he said, the videos showed the reality of what happened in the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009.
“Those videos allowed me to relive the reality of that battlefield:
what I saw, what other people saw, where people were, the valley, the
terraces, the trees, the friendlies,” meaning Afghan and U.S. forces,
said Swenson, 34, of Seattle. “It shows the truth of that battle, a
truth I never expected to see again.”
In a telephone interview Friday, Meyer said, “I wrote my book to the
best of my recollection of what happened. And if that’s not it, then
that’s not it.”
After reviewing the videos, Meyer said his vehicle was charged after
the helicopter had departed with Swenson’s wounded sergeant and an
injured Afghan soldier. His book, however, puts the “swarm” before the
aircraft landed for the pair.
Bing West, who co-authored the book, didn’t address the videos in an
email, saying only that a McClatchy reporter who survived the ambush
“has annually dredged up baseless innuendoes to attack the Medal of
Honor process and to denigrate the valor of Meyer.”
The videos aren’t the only new evidence that’s surfaced that disputes
crucial events described in the official accounts and in Meyer’s book.
The Army narrative of how Swenson was nominated for the Medal of
Honor and Swenson’s comments in the interview undermine the book’s claim
that Meyer killed an insurgent with a rock after he’d joined the
then-Army captain in an unarmored pickup to recover casualties.
It was Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo, not Meyer, who rode in the truck
with Swenson, according to Swenson and the account posted Thursday on an
Army Web page devoted to Swenson’s Medal of Honor. Fabayo was a
lieutenant at the time.
“Fabayo and I fought side by side for the entire battle,” Swenson
said. “When Fabayo and I returned into that valley in that unarmored
truck, he was shooting out of his passenger side window and I was on the
It wasn’t until the pickup broke down and Fabayo and he switched to
an armored Humvee for a final run that Meyer joined Marine Sgt. Juan
Rodriguez-Chavez, an Afghan translator and them, Swenson said.
The Army narrative and Swenson’s account are corroborated by sworn
statements included in Meyer’s Medal of Honor file or given to military
investigators after the battle by Rodriguez-Chavez, Fabayo and then-Maj.
Kevin Williams, the Marine commander who nominated Meyer for his Medal
The videos, Swenson’s comments and the Army account of Swenson’s
actions add to the controversy that’s embroiled the battle from the
minute it erupted. Tipped off in advance, scores of insurgents trapped
Afghan forces and their American trainers in the U-shaped valley, firing
storms of bullets and shells from a fortresslike village and the
A nearby U.S. base failed to provide air support or adequate
artillery cover to the Afghan and U.S. forces for 90 minutes. Two Army
officers later received career-ending reprimands, while Swenson — in an
interview with military investigators — accused senior U.S. commanders
of imposing politically driven rules of engagement that were getting
U.S. troops killed.
The battle, which lasted six hours, cost the lives of five American
servicemen, nine Afghan troops and an Afghan translator, and 17 others —
including Swenson and Meyer — were wounded.
Swenson, who was training Afghan Border Police on his second tour of
Afghanistan, and Meyer, who was training Afghan troops, were recommended
separately for the Medal of Honor for repeatedly returning to the
battlefield to retrieve casualties, including the bodies of three
Marines and a Navy corpsman. Swenson also was recommended for his role
in extracting U.S. troops from the ambush.
In addition to finding that key parts of Meyer’s memoir, as well as
the Marine Corps and White House accounts of his actions, were
embellished, untrue or unsubstantiated, McClatchy’s investigation raised
questions about the military awards process, which some lawmakers,
military officers and veterans groups say is subject to improper
influence and manipulation.
McClatchy’s findings were based on dozens of military documents —
including sworn statements by American participants in the battle — and
on interviews last year with nine Afghan troops who survived the clash
near the border with Pakistan.
The purported “swarm” of Meyer’s vehicle by charging insurgents is a major facet of the official narratives and his memoir.
In the book, Meyer and West wrote that Meyer, firing from his
Humvee’s turret, killed up to five of some 10 insurgents who assaulted
the vehicle as he and the driver, Rodriguez-Chavez, pushed into the
ambush zone in a rock-strewn wash that leads up the Ganjgal Valley to
the village of the same name.
Their telling describes Meyer’s purported thoughts and actions as he
mows down Taliban with a .50-caliber machine gun and his rifle.
Rodriguez-Chavez ran down an insurgent, they wrote.
Narrating the incident at Meyer’s Sept. 15, 2011, award ceremony,
Obama related how the insurgents were “running right up to the Humvee,
Dakota fighting them off.”
Meyer and West wrote that the “swarm” occurred just before an Army
Black Hawk helicopter landed to retrieve Swenson’s sergeant, Kenneth
Westbrook, who died a month later from complications from the treatment
of bullet wounds. A map in the book titled “Meyer swarmed during
MEDEVAC” pinpoints the location of the swarm at 300 meters — 328 yards —
ahead of where the Black Hawk landed.
The videos, however, dispute the accounts of the “swarm” in the book, the Marine Corps accounts and the narrative Obama read.
Cameras mounted in the helmets of the co-pilot of the Black Hawk —
Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Jason Penrod — and of the crew
chief, Duerst, captured the scene as the aircraft flew into the valley
to retrieve Westbrook and the wounded Afghan soldier.
All accounts agree that Westbrook was being carried out of the kill
zone by other Americans escaping the ambush when Rodriguez-Chavez and
Meyer sped around them and headed up the wash in search of the missing
Marines and Navy corpsman with whom contact had been lost.
The videos record the Black Hawk helicopter’s west-to-east flight up
the wash. The aircraft then turns right onto a western heading, banks
around and lands in clouds of dust to pick up Westbrook from a terrace
where Swenson had laid out a bright orange panel. Swenson is seen
kissing Westbrook on his forehead before the aircraft takes off.
The videos record sweeping shots of the terraced valley, occasional
trees and enclosing slopes. Penrod’s video — shot through the cockpit
windscreen — briefly shows another U.S. helicopter above the valley,
looking to rain rockets and gunfire at any insurgents who showed
themselves, and trying to spot the missing Americans.
No Taliban are seen anywhere on the valley floor, including the
vicinity of the location of the “swarm” pinpointed by Meyer and West.
What is briefly seen in Penrod’s video, between the helicopter
cockpit windshield divider and the right-hand wiper blade, are the
blurry figures of the American ambush survivors crossing out of the kill
zone with the injured Westbrook. Just ahead of them is a dust cloud
thrown up by Meyer’s vehicle.
At that moment, Duerst’s video — shot from the Black Hawk’s right
door — records an Afghan soldier walking upright in the open, pointing
up toward the village. He’s the first of at least five Afghan soldiers
seen in the vicinity of where Meyer and West pinpoint the surge. None
are shooting or taking cover from incoming fire or explosions. Nor are
they running to help as would be expected if insurgents were attacking
Instead, the five walk slowly, fully exposed to any gunfire, moving
toward the village. Duerst’s video shows a second Afghan soldier
pointing up and forward, trying to direct the helicopter crew’s
attention toward the village.
Duerst said the only insurgents seen firing were spotted by the crew
member in the left-hand door in an area at the base of a mountain on the
northern side of the village, which is about a quarter mile from the
kill zone. “That’s why we turned when we did,” he explained.
In the interview, Meyer said the videos didn’t depict the time the
swarm took place. He said his vehicle was charged after the aircraft
flew away with Westbrook.
“There was no way I was all the way up. I didn’t even push forward …
until that bird was out of that,” he said. “The bird was off the deck
when the swarm happened.”
But the narrative in the book and a timeline in the appendix say the swarm occurred before the helicopter landed.
The timing of the videos with Meyer’s run into the wash also
corresponds with sworn statements given by Rodriguez-Chavez, Fabayo and
other U.S. servicemen.
The Army’s account of Swenson’s action and Swenson’s comments
undermine Meyer’s claim that he killed an insurgent by bashing his head
in with a rock.
In his memoir, Meyer relates how he joined Swenson in the unarmored
Ford Ranger pickup belonging to the Afghan Border Police for a run into
the kill zone to search for casualties and the missing Marines and Navy
After returning to the wash, Meyer got out of the vehicle, while
Swenson remained behind the wheel because of injuries, the book says.
Meyer, the book continues, ran across the body of Dodd Ali, an Afghan
soldier whom he’d befriended, and as he was getting ready to pick up
the corpse, a “tough looking Afghan with a long black beard” tried to
take him prisoner at gunpoint.
After firing a grenade at the Afghan that failed to explode, Meyer
grappled with the attacker and killed him with the rock, according to
The incident, however, isn’t mentioned in any sworn witness
statements — including the handwritten statement that Meyer provided to
military investigators days after the battle — nor does it appear in any
of the official accounts.
It was Fabayo, a Nigeria-born American citizen, who joined Swenson in
the pickup — not Meyer — to retrieve casualties under ferocious enemy
fire before the bullet-torn vehicle broke down, according to Swenson,
the Army account of his actions and sworn statements, including by
Rodriguez-Chavez, who was awarded the Navy Cross for gallantry.
“After the second trip, it became very clear to us the absurdity of
the situation,” Swenson told McClatchy. “We are in an unarmored truck.
We have helicopters overhead. The enemy is still engaging us and my
truck is destroyed. We had to return; we had to get an armored vehicle.”
In a Nov. 12, 2009, statement to military investigators, Fabayo
described the shock of finding numerous casualties, picking them up with
Swenson and slinging them into the pickup.
“We had so many casualties. … I mean there was blood everywhere, guys
shoot everywhere. It was turning into a mass casualty situation,”
recalled Fabayo, who also received the Navy Cross for gallantry. “By
that time, it didn’t matter. We were not going to leave our guys