Dakota Meyer and a grateful nation

For most Americans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been largely remote affairs, fought by men and women far from home, their victories and defeats in distant fields now matters of sporadic public attention. Not for Dakota Meyer, a 23-year-old who on Thursday became the first living Marine to receive the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

On Sept. 8, 2009, then-Cpl. Meyer and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez were part of a contingent of U.S. forces visiting an Afghan village to train fighters and persuade elders to support the Afghan government. It was a dangerous area, and as the meeting was underway, the village was suddenly plunged into darkness. Insurgents on the ridges above began firing on American and Afghan soldiers. Meyer was back with the trucks at that moment, but his comrades who were posted farther forward were cut off by the ambush.

Amid gunfire so intense it “sounded like static,” Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez radioed for permission to rescue the embattled Marines and soldiers. They were denied. Defying orders, they commandeered a Humvee and, with Rodriguez-Chavez at the wheel and Meyer manning the gun, made five trips through the fire zone. For six hours, they kept up their heroic efforts, even after Meyer was wounded in the arm. All told, they brought 13 Americans and 23 Afghans to safety before, on the last foray, risking their lives yet again to recover the bodies of four fellow Marines. At Meyer’s request, those four, and a fifth American killed that day, were honored Thursday with private ceremonies in their hometowns as Meyer was receiving the Medal of Honor from President Obama.

Americans remain divided on the war in Afghanistan. A Gallup poll in May, soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden, found that 51% of those surveyed believed the war was going well, compared with 47% who thought it was going badly. And yet there is no such division, nor should there be, in the public’s appreciation for those who carry the great burden of this long engagement. Meyer received the Medal of Honor on behalf of his colleagues; it is tribute to him that he did so, and a reminder to all Americans that servicemen and women risk their lives every day in defense of this nation’s interests. They deserve their country’s undivided gratitude.