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Videos contradict Medal of Honor recipient's account of Taliban attack

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 7:03 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (MCT) - In his memoir of the 2009 battle in Afghanistan that brought him the Medal of Honor, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer describes how he reflexively switched from his machine gun to his rifle and back to his machine gun as he mowed down a swarm of charging Taliban from the vehicle's turret.

"My mind was completely blank. I fired so many thousands of rounds I didn't think what I was doing," Meyer, then a corporal, wrote in his 2012 book, "Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War."

But videos shot by Army medevac helicopter crewmen show no Taliban in that vicinity or anywhere else on the floor of the Ganjgal Valley at the time and location of the "swarm." The videos also conflict with the version of the incident in Marine Corps and White House accounts of how Meyer, now 25, of Columbia, Ky., came to be awarded the nation's highest military decoration for gallantry.

The videos add to the findings of an ongoing McClatchy investigation that determined that crucial parts of Meyer's memoir were untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, as were the Marine Corps and White House accounts of how he helped extract casualties from the valley under fire. The White House and Marine Corps have defended the accuracy of their accounts of Meyer's actions. The Marine Corps declined to comment on the videos.

Army National Guard Sgt. Kevin Duerst, the helicopter crew chief whose helmet camera recorded one of the videos, confirmed the absence of insurgents on the valley floor as the aircraft flew in on a first run to retrieve casualties.

"We totally flew over everything. ... There was nothing going on down there," Duerst said in a telephone interview Friday. "There was no serious gunfight going on."

Former Army Capt. William Swenson, who's to receive a Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Tuesday for gallantry in the same battle, declined in an interview Sunday to directly address questions about the purported swarming of Meyer's vehicle.

But, he said, the videos showed the reality of what happened in the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009. "Those videos allowed me to relive the reality of that battlefield: what I saw, what other people saw, where people were, the valley, the terraces, the trees, the friendlies," meaning Afghan and U.S. forces, said Swenson, 34, of Seattle. "It shows the truth of that battle, a truth I never expected to see again."

In a telephone interview Friday, Meyer said, "I wrote my book to the best of my recollection of what happened. And if that's not it, then that's not it."

After reviewing the videos, Meyer said his vehicle was charged after the helicopter had departed with Swenson's wounded sergeant and an injured Afghan soldier. His book, however, puts the "swarm" before the aircraft landed for the pair.

Bing West, who co-authored the book, didn't address the videos in an email, saying only that a McClatchy reporter who survived the ambush "has annually dredged up baseless innuendoes to attack the Medal of Honor process and to denigrate the valor of Meyer."

The videos aren't the only new evidence that's surfaced that disputes crucial events described in the official accounts and in Meyer's book.

The Army narrative of how Swenson was nominated for the Medal of Honor and Swenson's comments in the interview undermine the book's claim that Meyer killed an insurgent with a rock after he'd joined the then-Army captain in an unarmored pickup to recover casualties.

It was Marine Capt. Ademola Fabayo, not Meyer, who rode in the truck with Swenson, according to Swenson and the account posted Thursday on an Army Web page devoted to Swenson's Medal of Honor. Fabayo was a lieutenant at the time.

"Fabayo and I fought side by side for the entire battle," Swenson said. "When Fabayo and I returned into that valley in that unarmored truck, he was shooting out of his passenger side window and I was on the radio, driving."

It wasn't until the pickup broke down and Fabayo and he switched to an armored Humvee for a final run that Meyer joined Marine Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, an Afghan translator and them, Swenson said.

The Army narrative and Swenson's account are corroborated by sworn statements included in Meyer's Medal of Honor file or given to military investigators after the battle by Rodriguez-Chavez, Fabayo and then-Maj. Kevin Williams, the Marine commander who nominated Meyer for his Medal of Honor.

The videos, Swenson's comments and the Army account of Swenson's actions add to the controversy that's embroiled the battle from the minute it erupted. Tipped off in advance, scores of insurgents trapped Afghan forces and their American trainers in the U-shaped valley, firing storms of bullets and shells from a fortresslike village and the surrounding slopes.

A nearby U.S. base failed to provide air support or adequate artillery cover to the Afghan and U.S. forces for 90 minutes. Two Army officers later received career-ending reprimands, while Swenson - in an interview with military investigators - accused senior U.S. commanders of imposing politically driven rules of engagement that were getting U.S. troops killed.

The battle, which lasted six hours, cost the lives of five American servicemen, nine Afghan troops and an Afghan translator, and 17 others - including Swenson and Meyer - were wounded.

Swenson, who was training Afghan Border Police on his second tour of Afghanistan, and Meyer, who was training Afghan troops, were recommended separately for the Medal of Honor for repeatedly returning to the battlefield to retrieve casualties, including the bodies of three Marines and a Navy corpsman. Swenson also was recommended for his role in extracting U.S. troops from the ambush.

(c)2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by MCT Information Services

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