- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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The American flag was presented as intended: 13 precise folds to form a crisp, blue triangle sprinkled with white stars. One year ago, the flag waved over the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan. On this day -- Sept. 15, 2012 -- it is in Salem, Ind., resting in the hands of a man who defended it to the absolute highest degree.
Later the same day, the flag would latch itself to the man's lion heart in remembrance of those lost on 9/11, and those lost in its aftermath working to reconcile it -- including the dearest friends the man had, killed in the direst of possible conditions.
The man was Dakota Meyer, the Marine Corps grunt who, on Sept. 8, 2009, defied first his superiors and then certain death in the name of saving his brothers, who were pinned down in a relentless kill zone in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley.
Meyer paid no mind to his own life, rushing headlong five times into a hailstorm of Taliban bullets so saturated, he said, it sounded like radio static. He would later tell me, "I didn't think I was dead I knew I was dead."
Six hours into the battle, his worst fears were realized. His friends were dead. In his quest to reach them in time, Meyer helped save 36 men. He personally would secure the remains of his mates and prepare them for a proper, honorable return home.
He would never be the same. His soul was pierced and his convictions compromised. He was 21 years old.
For his valor, Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade that can be bestowed upon a member of the U.S. military. Regular readers of this column may have seen the recent piece on him, detailing his shockingly direct approach to life and utter disdain for the term "hero," and his new mission to use his story to help war veterans find work in corporate America.
Since that piece ran, Meyer and I have become friendly and shared many conversations, deep and direct. He is not bitter. But there is little joy in his life. In fact, until very recently he knew no happiness.
"I can't ever go over there and fight. I can never do anything like that again, like I want to do," Meyer said. "I came home [from the war] and didn't think I'd ever enjoy anything again, ever be happy. I was just punching a time clock."
That may have changed.
Dakota Meyer found happiness in a race car.
It is a black Chevy Monte Carlo, No. 20. Its rims match its numerals, royal blue and so shiny they glow. His surname lines the side skirt beneath the door in large red letters, while his fallen teammates' names -- Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson and Doc James Layton -- grace the hood. They lead the way for him, just as they did on Sept. 8, 2009.
This race car is a tribute. Everything Meyer does is a tribute.
Nothing blocks out the pain. But racing, he said, manages to shift the focus. Racing fills the void as best can be filled.
Meyer is not an emotional man. He's seen too much to invest in trivial emotion. But as the national anthem played before his first career race -- Sept. 15 in the Street Stock Division at Salem Speedway -- he stood at attention and wept. Every time he hears it, he weeps. He wishes deeply that Americans truly understood the sacrifices required for freedom.
His first career race resulted in a 16th-place finish after a faster car spun the rookie out. Afterward, several drivers approached to say he did well and they'd enjoy seeing him again. Then Sprint Cup veteran Ken Schrader stopped by with some wisdom.
"He told me if the car's loose three laps in a row, it's not going to get any tighter," Meyer said with a laugh. "It was great to talk to him. He's such a humble guy. The thing that made me really happy about that is he didn't know who I was. I thought he came up to me because he knew who I was and that's why he wanted to help us.
"But come to find out, when I was grand marshal of the ARCA race afterward, he looked at me and said, 'Man, I didn't know I was over a hero's car.' So he didn't know anything about me and he came over to help us. That says so much about the guy. He was just helping another racer."
Meyer learned two key lessons in the race: Patience is paramount, and money equals speed.
But the event was bigger than any racing tutorial. It may prove to be a seminal moment in his life, a rebirth for a lost soul.
He had been certain he'd never feel this way again.
"It was amazing how it felt," he said, choosing his words in a slower cadence than normal. "I talked in my book, 'Into The Fire,' about how I became one with the gun on top of the truck. It's the same thing in the car: you have to become the car. You have to feel what the car is doing. You focus on that. And while you're in there, it's all you. You have a team spotting for you, of course. But it's you in there. You're performing. You're held accountable.
"If you have an opportunity to pass a guy, you're held accountable whether your do it there or do it somewhere else. It's all a game of opportunity and accountability, and being on the line of out-of-control. It's right there on that fine line and it's a challenge."
As Meyer strapped into his race car for the first time, he unzipped his fire suit. His cousin took the folded American flag, which was presented to Meyer during a ceremony at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 21, 2011, and slid it inside.
He raced with it over his heart.
"9/11 at the World Trade Center is really why my guys died " he said. "That's what it is to me. It was an emotional day. I just felt like that was the best way to represent what my guardian angel would be. I wanted to have that flag there, on my chest next to my heart. There's been many times when I've been willing to lay my life down for that flag. That's what it's about to me -- America."
Dakota Meyer hadn't experienced any real joy in his life since 2009, when his actions on a battlefield led to him being awarded the Medal of Honor. That may have changed behind the wheel of a race car.