Shortly after dawn on a September morning in 2009, American and Afghan troops set out on patrol along a rocky mile-long stretch in eastern Afghanistan. They were heading to a small village for a routine meeting with tribal elders.
Suddenly, everything went wrong.
Cpl. Dakota Meyer and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, who had stayed behind with the vehicles, heard small arms fire in the distance and knew instantly it was an ambush. Rodriguez-Chavez then heard an officer yelling for help on the radio.
"He said, 'I have wounded here. I need to get them out of here. If I don't get (backup) fires we're all going to die here,'" Rodriguez-Chavez recalled.
So the Marines had to act. Meyer, then age 21, kept asking for permission to help the stranded troops, but the officers said no.
"And then finally, I requested one last time," he said.
Again, the answer was no.
So Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez decided on the spot to disobey orders.
"He looks at me and says, 'Let's do it,'" Meyer said.
That decision was the start of a long day — a six-hour fight to save the trapped men.
Going Back, Again And Again
Rodriguez-Chavez hopped behind the wheel of a Humvee and drove straight into the ambush. Meyer climbed into the vehicle's gun turret and tried to pinpoint the elusive enemy.
But he said it was hard to identify the Taliban. "They look like normal people and the next thing you know they're shooting at you," Meyer said.
The Taliban fired mortars, and then rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire as the two Marines got closer. There were explosions and ricochets. The Humvee's side mirror was ripped off by the fire. The noise was deafening.
"Imagine one of those real loud firecrackers blowing up next to your ear," Rodriguez-Chavez said.
Yet Meyer kept firing back, with the shell casings from his machine gun spilling into the Humvee.
"It's kind of crazy because everything slows down. It seems like it was forever and ever," he said. "And it starts running through your head, I'm never going to see my family again."
Finally, they found a group of Afghan soldiers, the first men who'd been cut off. The two Americans piled the Afghans into the Humvee, including some who had been wounded.
As they dropped off the Afghan soldiers in a safe place, the Afghans warned the Americans, "don't go back, don't go back."
But the two Marines did go back — again and again.
And Thursday at the White House, President Obama is awarding Cpl. Dakota Meyer with the Medal of Honor, making him the first living Marine to receive the award since the Vietnam War.
Rodriguez-Chavez already has been awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor.
Surrounded By Taliban
Both men thought they were probably going to die that day. They remember having this exchange.
"Hey man, we'll probably get stuck out here," Rodriguez-Chavez said.
"We'll just die with them because I can tell you right now they're not going to get out of here without us," said Meyer.
They drove back and forth five times, and Meyer in particular took chances, exposing himself repeatedly to enemy fire. At one point, he was hit in the right arm.
On the final run, it got worse. Rodriguez-Chavez heard a report over the radio.
"Like, hey man, you're getting surrounded," he was told.
And they were. Taliban fighters swarmed toward them — firing AK-47s.
Meyer shot at the Taliban, hitting one in the head and others in the body, Rodriguez-Chavez said. "From the front of the Humvee, they were maybe two or three feet," he said.
The Marines drove on to try to rescue the final group of troops. Nothing had been heard from them for hours. Meyer hoped they'd just lost radio contact.
"What I thought was they had probably pushed up in to a house and lost (communications) and they were just waiting or us to get in there," Meyer said.
A Dozen Marines, Two Dozen Afghan Soldiers Saved
It turned out these American troops were dead. But that didn't stop Meyer, who ran to retrieve the bodies. Taliban gunfire kicked up dirt around him.
Eventually they brought the bodies back to base. Meyer helped place his dead comrades on a helicopter.
After six hours, it was over. Meyer kept thinking one thing.
"You feel like a failure. Why isn't that you being carried on that bird? Why are you standing here and they're not?" Meyer said.
Meyer was anything but a failure. His actions, say military officials, saved more than a dozen Marines and two dozen Afghan soldiers.
Meyer was promoted to sergeant before he left the Marines, and is now living in his native Kentucky, where he is a construction worker. Rodriguez-Chavez is now a gunnery sergeant stationed at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri, where he teaches troops how to drive Humvees and trucks.
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