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President Obama is awarding the Medal of Honor today. It will go to a Marine named Dakota Meyer. He's the first living Marine to receive the medal since the Vietnam War. In September 2009, Meyer, a corporal at the time, risked his life by heading into a Taliban ambush. His actions saved the lives of dozens of Marines and Afghan soldiers. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story of that day.
TOM BOWMAN: Here's the scene: shortly after dawn that September morning, groups of American and Afghan troops set out on patrol along a rocky mile-long stretch. They were heading to a small village and a routine meeting with tribal elders. Suddenly, everything went wrong. Staff Sergeant Juan Rodriguez Chavez had stayed behind with the vehicles. Here's what he remembers: small arms fire in the distance, an ambush, an officer yelling into his radio, calling for help
STAFF SERGEANT JUAN RODRIGUEZ-CHAVEZ: He's trying to call for fire. He said, you know, I have wounded here. I need to get them out of here. If I don't get this fire, we're all going to die here.
BOWMAN: All going to die. So the Marines had to act. One of them was Corporal Dakota Meyer. He was just 21. He kept asking for permission to help the stranded troops. Officers said no.
CORPORAL DAKOTA MEYER: And then finally I requested one last time.
BOWMAN: Again, the answer was no. So Meyer says he and Sergeant Rodriguez Chavez decided, on the spot, to disobey orders.
MEYER: He looks at me and says, let's do it.
BOWMAN: That decision was the start of a long day - a six-hour fight to save the trapped men. Rodriguez Chavez hopped behind the wheel of a Humvee and drove straight into the ambush. Meyer climbed into the vehicle's gun turret. He says he tried to pinpoint the enemy.
MEYER: It was hard to pick who the Taliban was. You know, they would look like normal people and then next thing you know they're shooting at you.
RODRIGUEZ-CHAVEZ: They shot mortars at us, and then as we got closer, it was RPGs and small arms fire.
BOWMAN: The Humvee's side mirror was ripped off by the fire. The noise was deafening.
RODRIGUEZ-CHAVEZ: A very, very scary sound. Imagine one of those real loud firecrackers blowing up beside your ear.
BOWMAN: Rodriguez Chavez said it was all surreal. Dakota Meyer kept firing back. The shell casings from his machine gun spilling into the Humvee. Here's Meyer again.
MEYER: It's kind of crazy because everything slows down. It seems like it was forever and ever. And it starts running through your head, you know, I'm never going to see my family again.
BOWMAN: Finally, they found the first group of men who'd been cut off. They were Afghan soldiers. Sgt. Rodriguez-Chavez says they piled the wounded and the others into the Humvee.
RODRIGUEZ-CHAVEZ: We dropped them off. Obviously they were all scared and they were like, no, no, too dangerous, too dangerous, don't go back, don't go back.
BOWMAN: But the two Marines did go back, again and again, which is why Dakota Meyer is being awarded the Medal of Honor today and why Sergeant Rodriguez Chavez was awarded the Navy Cross - the second highest award for valor. Both men thought they were probably going to die that day. They remember having this exchange.
RODRIGUEZ-CHAVEZ: Hey Man, we'll probably get stuck out here.
MEYER: (Bleep) We'll just die with them. Because I can tell you right now, they're not going to get out of here without us.
BOWMAN: They drove back and forth five times. Dakota Meyer, especially, took chances, exposing himself to enemy fire. At one point, he was hit in the right arm. On the final run, it got worse. Sergeant Rodriguez Chavez heard a report over the radio.
RODRIGUEZ-CHAVEZ: Like, hey, man, you're getting surrounded.
BOWMAN: They were: Taliban fighters swarmed toward them firing AK-47s.
RODRIGUEZ-CHAVEZ: A few them that came toward the Humvee, Meyer shot them. Shot one in the head, rest of them, shot them in the body and, you know, they fell. From the front of the Humvee, they were about maybe two or three feet.
BOWMAN: They drove on to try to rescue the final group of troops. Nothing had been heard from them for hours. Meyer says he'd hoped they'd just lost radio contact.
MEYER: What I thought was, is they had probably pushed up into a house, maybe lost comms and, you know, they were just waiting or us to get in there.
BOWMAN: It turns out, those American troops were dead. Dakota Meyer ran to retrieve the bodies. Taliban gunfire kicked up dirt around him. They brought the bodies back to the base. Meyer helped place his dead comrades on a helicopter. After six hours, it was over. Meyer kept thinking one thing.
MEYER: You feel like a failure, you know. Why isn't that you being carried on that bird? Why are you able to stand here and they're not?
BOWMAN: Meyer was anything but a failure. His actions, say military officials, saved more than a dozen Marines and two dozen Afghan soldiers.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: True story.
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