Hero at Home
What Comes After the Medal of Honor: An Interview with Dakota Meyer
Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer speaks about the controversy over his actions in Afghanistan, his suicide attempt, political ambitions and the work he’s doing for veterans.
In a rare in-depth interview, Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer opened up to The Daily Beast about his possible future in politics, the time he almost passed on speaking with the president because he didn’t want to miss work, the controversy generated by his award, his work as a veterans advocate, and more.
Meyer, now 25, is the first living U.S. Marine to receive the nation’s top award for valor since the Vietnam War. A native of Kentucky, he enlisted in 2006 shortly after graduating high school and the next year was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq. During his second deployment, to Kunar Province, Afghanistan, a 2009 ambush near the village of Ganjgal left three Marines and a Navy corpsman missing. Upon learning of the ambush, Meyer, along with other U.S. servicemen and Afghan soldiers, ventured into enemy fire to search for their missing comrades. Meyer's actions that day helped lead to the recovery of their bodies and saved the lives of a number of wounded troops.
About a year later, word got out that a living Marine had been nominated for the Medal of Honor. By this time Meyer was back home, living in Kentucky. He had left the active duty military and hit what he has since called his personal “rock bottom,” including a suicide attempt. Suddenly thrust into the national spotlight by virtue of his award—one conspicuously rare in twelve years of war was initially and universally celebrated as a hero.
A later report by Jonathan Landay, who was embedded with a Marine unit involved in the Battle of Ganjgal, questioned several key details in the official Marine Corps account of the firefight, including Meyer’s role. Landay went so far as to say that “crucial parts that the Marine Corps publicized and Obama described [in his speech honoring Meyer] are untrue.”
Further controversy came with news that Army Captain William Swenson, also nominated for a Medal of Honor for his actions in Ganjgal, was involved in a public dispute with Meyer. Though Meyer has praised Swenson’s heroism and publicly lobbied for him to receive the Medal of Honor, according to a 2013 Washington Post report Swenson "remains skeptical of Meyer and the publicity he has sought," and has "engaged in a lengthy and bitter dispute with the military over the narrative of [the Battle of Ganjgal]." At first suspiciously lost by the military bureaucracy, Swenson’s Medal of Honor paperwork was later revived, but General David Petraeus, acting surreptitiously, tried to have the award downgraded to a lesser one. Late last year, Swenson was finally awarded the Medal of Honor, an outcome that Meyer was pleased with, saying the captain’s bravery that day needed to be recognized.
Army veteran and The Daily Beast contributor Brian Van Reet spoke with Meyer in a wide-ranging interview that covered this and many other subjects.
This interview has been edited for order and clarity.
BVR: In the middle of the government shutdown you famously tweeted, “Congress 2016. POTUS 2024.” 2016 is approaching quickly. Is getting involved in politics a serious aspiration of yours?
DM: I’ll do whatever it takes to go out and help others. If someday down the road, if people feel like that’s the way to go, I’ll look into it more seriously. But as of right now, whatever I can do to make the biggest difference is what I want to do.
BVR: Is it true that when the President called to tell you that you would be receiving the Medal of Honor, you asked him to call you back on your lunch break?
DM: They called and gave me a time. Look, 11:50, you’ll be receiving a call from the White House. We need you to be on a landline an hour prior, and we’ll call every fifteen minutes to make sure the line is open. And I told them, I said, “That ain’t happening.” And they said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Look, I’ve got to work and I ain’t got a landline out there. I’m out in the field. I said, “So, he’ll just have to call me on my cell phone if he’s going to call. And so they had to coordinate it. He was supposed to call me at 11:50, and I scheduled my lunch break around it. He ended up being late. They said, “Well, you know, the President is busy right now. He’s going to call you but he could be a little late.” I said, “Well, I’m busy, too. I’ll try to answer, but if I don’t hear my phone, he’ll have to call back.”
BVR: When you had a beer with the President, what did you guys talk about?
DM: Whether people agree with his politics, whether you’re Republican or Democrat or anything else, at the end of the day the man still became president because he’s the best man. So I just asked him, what does it take to be successful? How do you get to be where you’re at?
BVR: What did he say?
DM: He just said, you’ve got to keep going out there and working hard every day. Education. Just multiple things like that. Not giving up. Believing in it.
BVR: Did you two talk about the wars at all?
DM: No, not really. He did talk about how he had read over my actions and said that he believed that I deserved the medal.
BVR: Why do you think there have been such few Medals of Honor awarded post-9-11, as compared to the rate they were awarded in Vietnam or World War II?
DM: There’s more access to people, and I think that everyone remembers things differently and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I mean, just look at the controversy mine has come under. I think that’s why. Just because one person relives an account differently.
BVR: So you would say the lack of Medals of Honor is due to the military vetting people more closely, getting more sworn statements—
DM: I think there is more technology available. And I think the standard, it’s almost an impossible standard to receive the medal.
BVR: You were the first living recipient—
DM: The first living Marine since Vietnam, yeah.
BVR: As far as the controversy, do you have anything you want to say to people who have publicly doubted the Marine Corps’ official account of the Battle of Gangjal?
DM: No. I mean there’s really nothing to say. The medal was given on all eyewitness accounts. The only statement that wasn’t used in that was my own.
BVR: So you would say that account was accurate and there were not exaggerations or inaccuracies?
DM: I don’t know. That’s the thing. You’re trying to ask me about something four years ago and I can’t sit and… well, it’s 2009, five years ago. The only thing people are doubting are the numbers of people saved and the numbers of people killed and to that I say, I don’t know what the numbers are. I wasn’t out there trying to click, trying to keep stats. I can say this. I didn’t kill enough and I didn’t save enough.
BVR: Do you have a relationship these days with Army Captain Will Swenson?
DM: No, I haven’t spoken to him.
BVR: I know that you lobbied strongly on his behalf for his valor to be officially recognized, and it’s probably safe to say that without your attention to him, he would not have received his own Medal of Honor. Do you feel in any way betrayed by some of his criticism of you?
DM: I still think Will Swenson deserves the medal and I think that he acted courageously that day. I just wish him the best. I wish nothing but the best for him.
BVR: As far as your own reintegration, I know that your book goes into some of the problems you had, even to the point of a suicide attempt that you called your rock bottom. What drove you to that point, and what changed, afterward?
DM: That’s what most guys have is the guilt, the frustration, the anger of what happened over there. Guys you lost, brothers and sisters that fell over there next to you, and you made it home. Just the guilt of it. Knowing that you’ll never be able to talk to them again. Knowing that in one day you lost everything you cared about. I told myself, when I heard the drop of the hammer, look. If you really want to go this route, rack the gun again, put a bullet in it, and do it, if it’s that bad. If it’s not, if you drive off from this place, don’t ever look back and do it again, and go make a difference.
BVR: That was years ago, right? Four years ago. Do you feel like you’re in a totally different place now?
DM: Yeah, I am. I’m in a totally different place. I just try to go out and help others, to do whatever I can to make a difference.
BVR: What kind of work have you been doing to try and make a difference?
DM: I’m trying to raise awareness for veterans. We all worry about our next generation. Since 9-11, we’ve been in the longest war we’ve ever been in. It was an all-volunteer war, and it was fought with less than .45% of the nation doing it. I think that’s the greatest of our generation. Our veterans are the greatest of the generation. These men and women could’ve chosen to do anything that they wanted to in the world, they could have went and had any opportunity they wanted, but they chose to be greater and do bigger things, something that’s most honorable, serving their country and serving other people. So if we put any words in the same sentence as veterans, other than “great,” it’s not the right word.
BVR: Do you think finding employment is one of the biggest challenges facing new veterans?
DM: Yeah, I do. Everything in our lives revolves around our jobs. As much as we hate to say it. Where we live at, where our kids go to school, what we eat, what lifestyle we live, depends on the income we bring in, and being able to provide for your family, and that’s your employment.
BVR: That ties in to the work you are doing these days with Toyota and Hiring Our Heroes.
DM: I’m working with Toyota and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with Hiring Our Heroes. There’s a huge gap in veteran employment and veterans being able to integrate back in society, so one of the biggest places we think we could help is by helping them get employed, and that’s what we’re trying to go out and do.
BVR: Have you used the Post-9-11 G.I. Bill?
BVR: Where do you think that fits in? Obviously it’s a huge—
DM: It’s a huge asset. I don’t know if a lot of them know how to use it or if they know the capabilities that they could use it on. I think where they are opening it up for trade schools, that is starting to help out more because, just like myself, I went into the Marine Corps because I didn’t want to go to college. So why, four years later when I got out, would you think that anything is any different?
BVR: Moving to another subject, what do you think about some of the recent media stories—I’m thinking of the most recent Fort Hood shooter—stories that immediately jump to explain his actions by citing PTSD?
DM: Yeah, that’s ridiculous. Because, if that’s what PTSD is, then that is a whole different… the effects of coming back from war are not psychotic. What that man did on Fort Hood is psychotic. Having dreams and reliving what happened, I mean, that’s normal stuff, but that doesn’t make me want to go hurt other people, the same people you just fought for. So I think, if they’re going to classify that shooting as PTSD, then they need to have a different classification for what most veterans have when they come home from war.
BVR: I wanted to ask you about—I don’t know if you can talk about it—but the lawsuit that you filed against BAE settled—
DM: I can’t talk about it.
BVR: Can you confirm that these are your words, if I read you a part of an email that the New Yorker reported you sent to your boss? “I feel that by selling this to Pakistan we are doing the exact opposite. We are simply taking the best gear, the best technology on the market to date and giving it to guys that are known to stab us in the back…. These are the same people who are killing our guys.”
DM: I think the only thing I can really say on this is that we settled our differences amicably.
BVR: Fair enough. Well, I’m a veteran, too, and people ask me, if we get into a conversation about these things, people ask me if I think the Iraq War was worth it. And I’m sure they ask you the same thing.
DM: Oh yeah.
BVR: What do you think? Was all the sacrifice worth it?
DM: Look. Here’s what I’ll say. A lot of times we forget what our mission was, going over there. Are you an Iraq veteran?
DM: A lot of times, a lot of people, we take it out of context. The public, they want to win. They want a win. It’s like a fistfight—there is no win. Unless you just hit somebody and knock them out, but there’s still no win. So, our mission going over there to Iraq and Afghanistan was basically the same. To stabilize the country, to try to help them build a democracy, to build their government up, their military, and give them the best opportunity to succeed that they’ve ever had. I don’t know when you went over there, but when I left there, it was in a lot better place than it was when I got there. If they succeed or not, then that’s their destiny. That’s on them. We can’t baby them forever. With Iraq, I will say that we did kill the 21st century Hitler. We got rid of him. It depends on what Americans want to call a win or loss.
BVR: Do you think that the all-volunteer force is possibly a harmful thing? Do you think there should have been a draft?
DM: No. No way. If you start doing a draft, you start pulling in…the quality of the military comes down.
BVR: I guess the trade off would be that the country as a whole feels more invested in the war.
DM: They should do that anyway, because these men and women are fighting and sacrificing for their freedom. It shouldn’t take them having to serve. They should be happy that they don’t have to serve.