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Friday, August 31, 2012
A higher calling awaits Meyer

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

Dakota Meyer is an attitude adjustment for a society that desperately needs one.

In this era that trumpets frivolity as newsworthy and anoints fame based on hollow criteria like money and TV time, Meyer's arrow-straight approach is a fire alarm at 3 a.m.: Wake. Up.

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Generally we tend to be selfish, no matter how selfless we are. There is political gain in everything. And the progression of each day's attitude is often based on what we do and don't achieve in that space, and how other folks react to those successes and failures. It's ridiculous, really. But it's true.

Very few people truly don't care about outside influences or anonymous opinions, let alone tangible ones. Very few people have that much self-confidence. And even fewer have that much grace.

Meyer seems to. I'm not going to pretend to know him. I don't. I spent 18 or so minutes with him on a hot August afternoon in Bristol, Tenn. It was as intense an 18-minute conversation as I can recall having. Meyer is so direct, you think he's kidding you at times. He's not.

His demeanor could be the result of what he's seen and what he's done, though it seems he'd tell you otherwise. He's a Kentucky boy who joined the Marine Corps at 17, prepared to serve his country as best he knew how. And he served his fellow man with a resolve that cannot be done justice with words. This is my best attempt.

Dakota Meyer
Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer speaks during a Hiring Our Heroes hiring fair at Quantico Marine Base in Quantico, Va., on Aug. 13.

Meyer is not selfish. Spend 60 seconds in the same room and you do not question his intentions. Granted, he probably should be selfish. He earned the right to be. He is, in fact, the antithesis.

Meyer earned the Medal of Honor for saving 36 other men from hell on earth during a furious, six-hour barrage of bullets, sprayed from an array of Taliban weapons during an ambush in Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009. He completely disregarded his own well-being to save others. He marched head-on into a kill-zone five different times, defying orders to do it. He exposed himself to a blizzard of enemy fire.

And he did not back down.

When President Obama honored Meyer at the White House on Sept. 15, 2011, he noted during his speech that those on-site during the firefight considered it the "most-intense combat they'd ever seen."

Four members of Meyer's team were already dead. But he didn't give up on them, either. It was the fifth sprint through the mess. They were his friends. They were his brothers. He secured their remains.

But don't call him a hero. Do not do it. You'll ruin his day.

"It's horrible," said Meyer, steel-grit in his eye, of the decision that led to this legacy. "It's like a curse."

Read the following closely. It is an excerpt from the Marine Corps' official citation description of why Meyer was worthy of the Medal of Honor:

Corporal Meyer maintained security at a patrol rally point while other members of his team moved on foot with two platoons of Afghan National Army and Border Police into the village of Ganjgal for a pre-dawn meeting with village elders. Moving into the village, the patrol was ambushed by more than 50 enemy fighters firing rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and machine guns from houses and fortified positions on the slopes above. Hearing over the radio that four U.S. team members were cut off, Corporal Meyer seized the initiative. With a fellow Marine driving, Corporal Meyer took the exposed gunner's position in a gun-truck as they drove down the steeply terraced terrain in a daring attempt to disrupt the enemy attack and locate the trapped U.S. team. Disregarding intense enemy fire now concentrated on their lone vehicle, Corporal Meyer killed a number of enemy fighters with the mounted machine guns and his rifle, some at near point blank range, as he and his driver made three solo trips into the ambush area. During the first two trips, he and his driver evacuated two dozen Afghan soldiers, many of whom were wounded. When one machine gun became inoperable, he directed a return to the rally point to switch to another gun-truck for a third trip into the ambush area where his accurate fire directly supported the remaining U.S. personnel and Afghan soldiers fighting their way out of the ambush. Despite a shrapnel wound to his arm, Corporal Meyer made two more trips into the ambush area in a third gun-truck accompanied by four other Afghan vehicles to recover more wounded Afghan soldiers and search for the missing U.S. team members. Still under heavy enemy fire, he dismounted the vehicle on the fifth trip and moved on foot to locate and recover the bodies of his team members. Corporal Meyer's daring initiative and bold fighting spirit throughout the 6-hour battle significantly disrupted the enemy's attack and inspired the members of the combined force to fight on. His unwavering courage and steadfast devotion to his U.S. and Afghan comrades in the face of almost certain death reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

Reading that makes me feel foolish about my day's travails.

"I'm not a guy who likes to be in the spotlight. I don't like to be flashy," he said. "The worst part about is when somebody calls you a hero. When somebody calls me a hero it ruins my whole day. The men and women who serve, they're the heroes. And some people just want to argue with you -- 'No! You're a hero!' And I'm like, 'Tell my team that I'm a hero.'"

Meyer is the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the Medal of Honor. He is one of only three living service members since the Vietnam War to receive the award. He doesn't carry the medal with him. He can't tell you the last time he wore it. You'll never hear him discuss it unprompted, much less brag about it.

Again, he lost four dear friends that day, so he just doesn't want to hear it. He wears their names on his wrist. In an effort to immortalize them he wrote a book chronicling his service, appropriately titled "Into The Fire." It is set to hit shelves Sept. 25.

"The four guys, my team that died, they're just names to you," he said. "But the book is in paper. It's a milestone I can leave, that you get to know these guys. They're actual people to you now. That way they never really die. That's the most important thing to me -- that my teammates that got killed that day never die."

Those aren't the only brothers he aims to help. He teamed up with Toyota and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in the Hiring Our Heroes program to help build a support system for returning troops and veterans making the transition to civilian jobs. That is why he's at Bristol Motor Speedway on this hot summer Saturday, shaking hands with National Guardsmen on souvenir row.

And it's one of the only reasons he's willing to tolerate questions about his service.

"You wouldn't be talking to me if I wasn't a Medal of Honor recipient. That brought you to the table, and I just took this whole conversation to what I can do for other veterans," he said. "Being a Medal of Honor recipient I care nothing about.

"I'm out [of the service]. We can talk about what I did then, but it's not about that. It's about what you do afterward. That's how you're remembered. I'm not going back to fight, so why can't I fight for them out here?"

And he does fight for them. His delivery is a Nolan Ryan heater just under the chin. It gets your attention.

"It's a mental thing for me -- I'm getting recognized for the worst day of my life," Meyer said. "It's all anyone wants to talk about, so you live it over and over and over. You can't ever get past it.

"But the more I talk about it the more those guys live on, who sacrificed so much. And you represent so much more. You really have to step back and stop looking at your life through this window. You have to look at the 30,000-foot view of it. Where can I go to make a difference?

President Barack Obama and Dakota Meyer
President Barack Obama and Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer have a beer on the patio outside the Oval Office in 2011.

"That's where Toyota fit in. They wanted to do that same thing, to go out and make a difference for veterans. They saw the need and the opportunity. That's why we teamed up -- to make a difference for those guys."

Meyer noted how difficult it is for a member of the military -- who, for four years, was exceptional at his or her position -- to transition to corporate America. He or she leaves the service and … then what?

"He gets out and can't even provide for his own family anymore. Psychologically, on any of us, that would be hard -- much less when you throw on the psychological part of war, or whatever experience he was into," he said.

Meyer came home from the war in the first week of December 2009, after four years of service. He was 21. When the president called to congratulate him on the Medal of Honor, Meyer asked if he might call back during Meyer's lunch break.

If he wasn't working, he wasn't earning.

Meyer was on a construction site run by his cousin when Toyota called to inquire about a partnership.

"The Marine Corps is made up of different areas -- you have administrative sides," he explained. "And those jobs are easier transitional to the civilian world. But you take a guy like me. I was a grunt, Infantry, sniper. You go out and say, 'Hey, I'm a sniper.' Well, there's not too many job openings for corporations out there for a sniper.

"Military guys aren't going to go out and beat their chest. That's just not the culture they're in."

So the key is learning to market yourself, he said. Tell potential employers you have elite communication, organizational and public speaking skills, because you were required to give briefs. Tell them you used PowerPoint to give those briefs.

"You have to break it down further than just 'sniper,' to the discipline and teamwork," he said. "The Marine Corps was four years of my life I dedicated, and I learned so many life skills that I could bring to the table. But an employer looks at you and says, 'Show me your college degree.'

"How many times do employers hire people that their degree has nothing to do with what they're doing? So why not hire a veteran? The veteran's already proven he can commit to something for four years. It's just like a degree to some point. It should count for more than it does."

Agreed. That statement is not even debatable.

Last September -- the day before he received the Medal of Honor -- Meyer had a cold one with President Obama. He says there's two Obamas, and whether or not you like the president, you'd like Barack.

"Barack Obama is a great guy, no matter what anybody's opinion is of him as a president," Meyer said. "What I asked him was, 'What does it take to be successful?' Because no matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, nobody can say Barack Obama is not successful -- he made it to be the President of the United States."

As much as Meyer enjoyed his time with the president, he equally enjoys his time at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"NASCAR fans, I always like being around them," he said. "The thing about NASCAR is, it never gets too good and forgets where it came from. All the fans are patriotic. They're down to earth and never forget. They're more supportive. It's the area I fit into more.

"I always like Dale Earnhardt Jr. I've always liked his personality because he's so down to earth."

Asked what his personal goals are in the Hiring Our Heroes program, Meyer stated simply:

"Whatever it takes to make a difference."

Asked for more specificity, Meyer didn't blink.

"Whatever it takes to make a difference."

Admirable. Humbling.

He met that goal long ago.