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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Medal of Honor Ceremony Honoring Sergeant Dakota Meyer

Aired September 15, 2011 - 14:40   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you would, please pray with me. Almighty God, we pause to acknowledge your grace, which has brought us to this momentous day. We confirm by this ceremony that in accordance with your divine guidance, our forbearers established a nation rooted in the ideals of courage and virtue.

We now yield to your direction for this country, even as we bestow its highest honors on Sergeant Dakota Meyer, who himself, sacrificed to defend its most cherished values. God, hear our gratitude for your honing Sergeant Meyer's character through the loving support of his family, as well as countless mentors and friends.

Know of our thankfulness for emboldening this Marine's spirit, so when called on to preserve the safety and dignity of his comrades, he was able to find it within himself to demonstrate the valor of his character.

God, for his selflessness and courage, revealed that day in Kunar province, this nation is indeed exceedingly grateful. We ask now that you would touch his humble spirit. That he would know as the nation's highest award is draped around his neck, you encircle him with the depth of your love.

Acknowledging not only him, but those Marines and sailors who are so much a part of his actions on that fateful day. Speak to him in the privacy of his heart and assure him that as his actions are honored, you equally recognize those who demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice everything in order to uphold the ideals we honor this day.

With that in mind, we pray your abiding grace on the families and friends of the Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen, and coast guards man have given their lives in service to this country.

And we lift up in prayer all those who remain in harm's way throughout the globe. Now bestow your wisdom on those who lead this nation and shape her endeavors.

Guide them and each of us by the example of these our heroes who loved country more than self, mercy more than life. God, bless America. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, everybody. Please be seated. Thank you, Chaplain. Good afternoon, everyone. And on behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House.

It has been said that where there is a brave man in the thickest of the fight, there is the post of honor. Today, we pay tribute to America who placed himself in the thick of the fight again, and again and again. In so doing, he has earned our nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

And we are extraordinarily proud of Sergeant Dakota Meyer. Today is only the third time during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that a recipient of the Medal of Honor has been able to accept it in person.

And we are honored to be joined by one of the other two recipients, Sergeant First Class Leroy Petri who is here. I would point out something else of all the Medal of Honor recipients in recent decades. Dakota is also one of the youngest.

He is 23 years old and he performed the extraordinary actions for which he is being recognized today when he was just 21 years old. Despite all this, I have to say Dakota is one of the most down to earth guys that you will ever meet.

In fact, when my staff first tried to arrange the phone call so I could tell him that I'd approved his medal, Dakota was at work at his new civilian job on a construction site. He felt he couldn't take the call right then because he said, if I don't work, I don't get paid.

So we arranged to make sure he got the call during his lunch break. I told him the news and then he went right back to work. That's the kind of guy he is. He also asked to have a beer with me, which we were able to execute yesterday.

Dakota is the kind of guy who gets the job done. And I do appreciate, Dakota, you taking my call. The Medal of Honor reflects the gratitude of the entire nation. We're joined here by members of Congress, including somebody from your home state.

The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell. We are joined here by leaders from across my administration including secretary of Veterans Affairs, Rick Shinseki and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and leaders from across our Armed Forces including the commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos.

We're honored to welcome Dakota's father, Mike who is here. His extraordinary grandparents and more than 120 of Dakota's family and friends, many from his home state of Kentucky. I want to welcome Dakota's comrades from the Marine embedded training team.

And we are humbled by the presence of the members of the Medal of Honor society. Dakota, I realize the past two years have not been easy for you. Retelling the story of that day and standing here today. You're a very modest young man.

But as you said, you do it for a simple reason, retelling the story because it helps you to honor those who didn't come home, to remind your fellow Americans that our men and women in uniform are over there, fighting every single day.

So that is how we'll do this today. It is fitting that we do so this week, having just marked the 10th anniversary of the attacks that took our nation to war because in Sergeant Dakota Meyer, we see the best of a generation that has served with distinction through a decade of war.

Let me tell the story. I want you to imagine. It is September 8th, 2009. Just before dawn. Patrol of Afghan forces and their American trainers is on foot making their way up a narrow valley, heading into a village to meet with elders.

And suddenly, all over the village, the lights go out. That's when it happens. About a mile away, Dakota, who has been a corporal, and Staff Sergeant Juan Rodriguez Chavez, could hear the ambush over the radio.

It was as if the whole valley was exploding. Taliban fighters were unleashing a firestorm from the hills, from the stone houses, even from the local school. And soon, the patrol was pinned down taking ferocious fire from three sides.

Men were being wounded and killed and four Americans, Dakota's friends were surrounded. Four times Dakota and Juan had asked permission to go in. Four times they were denied. It was, they were told, too dangerous.

But one of the teachers in his high school once said, when you tell Dakota he can't do something, he is going to do it. And as Dakota said of his trapped teammates, those were my brothers and I couldn't just sit back and watch.

The story of what Dakota did next will be told for generations. He told Juan, they were going in. Juan jumped into a Humvee and took the wheel. Dakota climbed into the turret and manned the gun.

They were defying orders, but they were doing what they thought was right. So they drove straight into a killing zone. Dakota's upper body exposed to a blizzard of fire from AK-47s and machine guns from mortars and rocket propelled grenades.

Coming upon wounded Afghan soldiers, Dakota jumped out and loaded each of the wounded into the Humvee each time exposing himself to all that enemy fire. They turned around and drove those wounded back to safety.

Those who were there called it the most intense combat they had ever seen. Dakota and Juan would have been forgiven for not going back in. But as Dakota says, you don't leave anybody behind.

For a second time, they went back, back into the inferno. Juan at the wheel swerving to avoid the explosions all around them. Dakota up in the turret when one gun got jammed, grabbing another going through gun after gun. Again they came across wounded Afghans. Again, Dakota jumped out and loaded them up and brought them back to safety.

For a third time they went back. Insurgents running right up to the Humvee and Dakota fighting them off. Up ahead are group of Americans, some wounded were desperately trying to escape the bullets raining down. Juan wedged the Humvee right into the line of fire using the vehicle as a shield.

With Dakota on the guns, they helped those Americans back to safety as well. For a fourth time, they went back. Dakota was now wounded in the arm. The vehicle was riddled with bullets and shrapnel.

Dakota later confessed, I didn't think I was going to die. I knew I was, but still they pushed on finding the wounded, delivering them to safety. And then for a fifth time they went back, into the fury of that village, under the fire that seem to come from every window, every doorway, every alley.

When they finally got to those trapped Americans, Dakota jumped out and he ran toward them. Drawing all those enemy guns on himself, bullets kicking up the dirt all around him. He kept going until he came upon those four Americans, laying where they fell together as one team.

Dakota and the others who had joined him knelt down, picked up their comrades, and through all those bullets, all the smoke, all the chaos, carried them out one by one because as Dakota says, that's what you do for a brother.

And Dakota said he will accept this medal in their name. So today we remember the husband who loved the outdoors, Lieutenant Michael Johnson. The husband and father they called Gunny Jay, Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Johnson.

The determined Marine who fought to get on that team, Staff Sergeant Aaron Kenafe. The medic who gave his life tending to his teammates, hospital man Third Class James Layton. And a soldier wounded in that battle who never recovered, Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook.

Dakota, that I know you've grappled with the grief of that day. That you've said that your efforts were somehow a failure because your teammates didn't come home, but as your commander-in-chief, and on behalf of everyone here today and all Americans, I want you to know it is quite the opposite.

You did your duty above and beyond and you kept the faith with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps that you love. Because of your honor, 36 men are alive today. Because of your courage, four fallen American heroes came home.

In the words James Layton's mom, they could lay their sons to rest with dignity. Because of your commitment in the thick of the fight hour after hour, a former Marine who read about your story said you showed in the most desperate final hours, our brothers and God will not forsake us.

And because of your humble example, our kids, especially back in Columbia, Kentucky, and small towns all across America, they'll know that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do great things as a citizen and as a member of the American family.

Therein lies the greatest lesson of that day in that valley and the truth that our men and women in uniform live out every day. I was part of something bigger, Dakota has said, part of the team that worked together, lifting each other up and working toward a common goal. Every member of our team was as important as the other. That's a lesson that we all have to remember as citizens and as a nation as we meet the tests of our time here at home and around the world.

To our Marines, to all our men and women in uniform, to our fellow Americans, let us always be faithful.

And as we prepare for the reading of the citation, let me say, God bless you, Dakota, God bless our Marines and all who serve, and God bless the United States of America.

Semper fi.

So in keeping with Dakota's wishes for this day, I want to conclude by asking now Gunnery Sergeant Rodriguez Chavez and all those who served with Dakota, the Marines, Army, Navy to stand and accept thanks of a grateful nation.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president of the United States, in the name of the Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Corporal Dakota L. Meyer, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Marine-embedded Training Team 28, Regional Corps Advisory Command 37 in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on 8, September, 2009.

Corporal Meyer maintained security at a patrol rally point while other members of his team moved on foot with two platoons of Afghan national army and border police into the village of Ganjgal for a predawn meeting with village elders.

Moving into the village, the patrol was ambushed by more than 50 enemy fighters, firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, machine guns from fortified positions on the slopes above. Hearing over the radio that four U.S. team members were cut off, Corporal Meyer seized the initiative.

With a fellow Marine driving, Corporal Meyer took the exposed gunner's position in a gun truck as they drove down the steeply terraced terrain in a daring attempt to disrupt the enemy attack and locate the trapped U.S. team.

Disregarding intense enemy fire now concentrated on their lone vehicle, Corporal Meyer killed a number of enemy fighters with the mounted machine guns and his rifle, some at near-point-blank range as he and his driver made three solo trips into the ambush area.

During the first two trips, he and his driver evacuated two dozen Afghan soldiers, many of whom were wounded. When one machine became inoperable, he directed the return to the rally point to switch to another gun truck for a third trip into the ambush area, where his accurate fire directly supported the remaining U.S. personnel and Afghan soldiers fighting their way out of the ambush.

Despite a shrapnel wound to his arm, Corporal Meyer made two more trips into the ambush area in a third gun truck, accompanied by four other Afghan vehicles to recover more wounded Afghan soldiers and search for the missing U.S. team members.

Still under heavy enemy fire, he dismounted the vehicle on the fifth trip and moved on foot to locate and recover the bodies of his team members. Corporal Meyer's daring initiative and bold fighting spirit throughout the six-hour battle significantly disrupted the enemy's attack and inspired the members of the command force to fight on.

His unwavering courage and steadfast devotion to his U.S. and Afghan comrades in the face of almost certain death reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let us close in prayer.

God made this ceremony serve as a reminder of the responsibility that comes with receiving the grace gift of freedom. And as we depart this hallowed hall and return to our daily lives, we pray that you would ennoble and enable us that when called upon, we would recall the resolute fearlessness of Sergeant Dakota Meyer, and all those who wear the stars of valor and live up to our responsibilities to bring honor to you and to this country.

It is in your holy name, we pray. Amen.

OBAMA: Thank you all for joining us here today. We are grateful for Dakota. We are grateful for all our men and women in uniform. And I hope that all of you have not only been inspired by this ceremony, but also will enjoy the hospitality of the White House. I hear the food is pretty good.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you.

(APPLAUSE)