MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
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BLOCK: A story of extreme bravery under fire that seems straight out of a movie may be partly fiction after all. Three months ago, Dakota Meyer was the first living Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. President Obama awarded Meyer the medal for his heroics in Eastern Afghanistan one harrowing day in 2009. Meyer was then a 21-year-old corporal. He was honored for driving repeatedly into a ferocious ambush to rescue two-dozen Afghan soldiers and 13 American servicemembers, and killing eight Taliban insurgents at near point-blank range.
But according to an investigation by McClatchy Newspapers, that account of Meyer's actions has been exaggerated and embellished. The reporter, Jonathan Landay, was embedded with the ambushed forces that day in Afghanistan, and he started looking into the Marines' official accounts of what happened. Jonathan Landay, thanks for coming in.
JONATHAN LANDAY: My pleasure.
BLOCK: And we should first make clear, you believe in Meyer's heroism, and you say he deserved the Medal of Honor. But your point is that there are key details of the story that you say are untrue.
LANDAY: Absolutely. He was nominated for a good reason. It's what happened to his story once it got back here that I wrote about.
BLOCK: Why don't you tick through a few key points of discrepancy that you found in the story.
LANDAY: Regarding the saving of the 13 American lives, well, I was one of those people who was trapped in the kill zone. Directly involved in the ambush were 12 Americans. Four of them, unfortunately, died. That left eight. Two of those people were up on a ridge line about a half a mile from where we were. So that left six of us there.
The way we got out is that finally, the air cover that we had been denied, in the form of helicopters, got there. And they began suppressing enemy fire, and the six of us were able to get out of there.
BLOCK: Also, the number of Taliban who were killed, you question that as well.
LANDAY: There is no - the Marine Corps' own awards procedures require there to be at least two sworn statements from witnesses, attesting to every action that a medal of nominee is accredited with performing. And there aren't those eyewitness statements at all. In fact, there's only one, and that's from the man who was driving Meyer's vehicle, who said he saw one guy go down with a bullet to the head.
BLOCK: The Marines' response to the story, first, they say they were very disappointed by McClatchy's decision to publish the story. They say it's normal for minor discrepancies to appear. This was a deadly fight, they say, for their lives. You were there, in the middle of this firefight. Does that fog-of-war argument makes sense to you?
LANDAY: Not really, not in this case because Dakota Meyer, as brave as he was, wasn't the only American soldier, Marine in that battlefield. And there are men who were there; there were men who were not invited to the medal ceremony, who listened to what what was being said at that ceremony, and heard that there were things in that narrative that they knew not to be true. And yet these are men - are voiceless.
BLOCK: You quote from investigative accounts into what happened that day. None of the people you're mentioning spoke with you for your story. Why not? Why aren't their voices in this?
LANDAY: I think there's a couple of reasons. One is that some of these guys are career service personnel. They, I believe, are probably concerned that they could feel recrimination if they were to talk to me. But the second reason is because I didn't need, really, to talk to them. It's all on paper. All you need to do is consult the sworn statements that were part of Dakota Meyer's medal package - as they call it - as well as the sworn statements that were given to - in two official military investigations into that battle. So if you go through - which is what I did - all of that material, this is what you arrive at. It's inescapable.
BLOCK: What's the explanation, do you think, of how the story got, in your view, distorted in the way that it did?
LANDAY: Well, the Marines wanted a living Medal of Honor winner. You know, they've been at war for the last 10 years, roughly. They've been in some of the toughest fights of those two wars - places like Helmand, in Afghanistan, and Fallujah, in Iraq. They had been denied a Medal of Honor to a Marine named Peralta, who was killed in Fallujah. And according to sources that we've talked to, they wanted a medal.
And the fact is, under Marine Corps procedures, a Medal of Honor nomination must be made within three years of the event. And then they have five years in which to do the investigation and determine what the truth - or at least as close as they can get, through the fog of war, to that truth. The Marines pushed this through in a matter of months, six to eight months. And that is extraordinary.
BLOCK: This is an uncomfortable story in a number of ways. Isn't it, Jonathan? I mean this is a Marine who was injured in this firefight; who, as you say, undertook acts of extreme bravery. There would be a lot of people who say, you know, you're detracting from a war hero. You're damaging his reputation.
LANDAY: The emails have not been pretty. I do have a lot of supportive emails - people who understand what I was trying to write, what I was trying to do. I would ask those people to put themselves in the shoes of the men who were in that valley, who know the truth but have not been able to say: I'm sorry, but what we're hearing is not what happened there.
This is the hardest story that I have ever had to write. I've been a journalist for about 30 years. I have - a lot of that time was in war zones: Bosnia, Afghanistan and Kashmir, Iraq. And I understand. I've been in combat. I understand the fog of war, and that's why it's taken me three months of poring through these documents to be able to write what I wrote.
BLOCK: What about Dakota Meyer's response?
LANDAY: Dakota declined to be interviewed for my story. But the fact is that the one thing that nobody has really been able to do is to argue with the facts in my story - because the facts in my story are based on documents. They're not based on anonymous sources. They're not based on personal opinion. Everything I've written there - except regarding the pressure that the Marines were exerting to get this medal - everything in that story is based on hard pieces of paper.
BLOCK: Jonathan Landay, thank you very much.
LANDAY: It's a pleasure to be here.
BLOCK: Jonathan Landay covers national security and intelligence for McClatchy Newspapers.
We're going to read a bit more now from that statement the Marine Corps issued. (Reading) We firmly stand behind the Medal of Honor process and the conclusion that this Marine rightly deserved the nation's highest military honor.
The Marine statement goes on to say: Because of the nature of the events supporting awards for valor, it is normal for minor discrepancies to appear when reviewing the source information and collecting eyewitness statements. The integrity of the military award system, however, is paramount in the minds of all Marine commanders. Accordingly, awards for valor are not endorsed or approved without solid justification in the form of supporting documents and eyewitness statements.
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