LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Dakota Meyer was ambling through the cafeteria of his Kentucky high school in 2006 when he came upon a recruiter for the Marines. Curious, the beefy senior struck up a conversation, but told the military man he was hoping to play college football after graduation. "Yeah that's what I would do, because there's no way you could be a Marine," the recruiter told him.
Meyer walked away, the taunting words ringing in his ears. He returned five minutes later, ready to enlist.
Now more than five years later, the Kentucky farm boy is poised Thursday to receive the military's highest award, the Medal of Honor, lauded for charging through heavy gunfire on five death-defying trips to rescue comrades ambushed by insurgents in Afghanistan in September 2009.
All told, Meyer saved 36 lives - those of 13 Marines and Army soldiers along with 23 Afghan soldiers - all while providing cover for the troops to fight their way out of a withering, six-hour firefight with the Taliban that killed five other U.S. soldiers. And Meyer personally killed at least eight insurgents despite being wounded himself, according to the military.
President Barack Obama will bestow the medal on Meyer at a White House ceremony Thursday, making the soft-spoken 23-year-old former Marine the first from his branch who is living to receive the honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Meyer, who left the military after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now back to pouring concrete at his construction job in a far more bucolic setting - the tiny community of Greensburg in central Kentucky. He acknowledges that he struggles with the honor, the national attention. Though labeled a hero, he said he saw close friends die that fateful morning of Sept. 8, 2009, as they were unexpectedly pinned down in Kunar Province, a hotbed of clashes with the Taliban.
"It's hard, it's ... you know ... getting recognized for the worst day of your life, so it's... it's a really tough thing," Meyer said, struggling for words. Meyer insisted his fallen comrades also be remembered, so memorial services are being held in the hometowns of the slain soldiers to coincide with the White House ceremony Thursday.
The day those men died began like many others as Meyer took part in a security team supporting a patrol moving into a village in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley. Meyer and the other Americans had gone to the area to train Afghan military members when, suddenly, the lights in the village went dark, and gunfire erupted. About 50 Taliban insurgents perched on mountainsides and taking cover in the village had ambushed the patrol.
As the forward team took fire and called for air support that wasn't coming, Meyer, just a corporal at the time, begged his command to let him venture into combat to help extricate the team. Four times he was denied his request before Meyer and another Marine, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, jumped into an armored Humvee and headed into battle. For his valor, Rodriguez-Chavez, a 34-year-old who hailed originally from Acuna, Mexico, would be awarded the Navy Cross.
"They told him he couldn't go in," said Dwight Meyer, Dakota Meyer's 81-year-old grandfather, a former Marine who served in the 1950s. "He told them, "The hell I'm not,' and he went in. It's a one-in-a-million thing" he survived.
With Meyer manning the Humvee's gun turret, the two drew heavy fire. But they began evacuating wounded Marines and American and Afghan soldiers to a safe point. On one of the trips, shrapnel opened a gash in one of Meyer's arms.
Meyer made a total of five trips into the kill zone, each time searching for the forward patrol with his Marine friends - including 1st Lt. Michael Johnson - whom Meyer had heard yelling on the radio for air support.
Back in boot camp at Parris Island, Meyer had talked of the heroics of Medal of Honor recipient Jason Dunham, a Marine who died in 2004 after jumping on a grenade in Iraq to save his comrades. Dunham is the only other Marine to receive the honor for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Just to have the guts to do that is amazing," Meyer had thought then.
Now it's his turn.
With Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez ready to test fate a fifth time in the kill zone, a UH-60 helicopter arrived at last to provide overhead support. Troops aboard the chopper told Meyer they had spotted what appeared to be four bodies. Meyer knew those were his friends, and he didn't want to leave them there.
"It might sound crazy, but it was just, you don't really think about it, you don't comprehend it, you don't really comprehend what you did until looking back on it," Meyer said.
Wounded and tired, Meyer left the safety of the Humvee and ran out on foot.
"He just really took a chance," Dwight Meyer said.
Moving under cover of nearby buildings to avoid heavy gunfire, he reached the bodies of Johnson, a 25-year-old from Virginia Beach; Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; Corpsman James Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; and Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr., a 31-year-old gunnery sergeant from Columbus, Ga. Meyer and two other soldiers dodged bullets and rocket-propelled grenades to pull the bodies out of a ditch where the men had taken cover but were killed.
The deaths of Meyer's comrades prompted an investigation into events that day, and two Army officers were later reprimanded for being "inadequate and ineffective" and for "contributing directly to the loss of life." Along with Meyer's friends, a fifth American - Army Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook, 41, of Shiprock, N.M. - was fatally wounded in the ambush.
Meyer said he'll be humbled by the memory of his fallen comrades who will be honored as he receives the award Thursday.
One of the memorial services will be Thursday afternoon at a Columbus, Ga., cemetery for gunnery sergeant Johnson, a father of three who served nearly 13 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Will Duke, one of the organizers of the service, said that memorial also honors an "American hero."
"He joined the Marines, he went through hard training. He and his family sacrificed a great deal. And Sgt. Johnson ended up giving the ultimate sacrifice," Duke said. "We want to make sure he is remembered and receives the honor and respect he deserves."
Duke said the service was being held at Meyer's request and spoke volumes about his character.
"I can tell by his actions, not only the actions he took in earning the Medal of Honor in Afghanistan but also the actions he is taking now. Essentially by requesting these memorial services for his fallen comrades, he's saying this is about them."