“We will do to you what we did to the Russians!”
– Taliban insurgent leader transmission
At 0300 on Sept. 8, 2009, under the light of a full moon, a combined force convoy of about 13 Americans from Embedded Training Team 2-8 (ETT 2-8) and 80 Afghan National Police and army troops exited Camp Joyce in Kunar province for a two-and-a-half-hour trip to the remote hamlet of Ganjgal in eastern Kunar province, six miles from the Pakistan border. According to Jonathan S. Landay, a journalist from the McClatchy news syndicate embedded with ETT 2-8, “They were on a mission to search the village of Ganjgal … for weapons and … a meeting with the village elders who had reached an agreement to renounce the Taliban and accept the authority of the local government.”
Regional Command-East identified Kunar, part of the sector labeled N2KL (Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar, and Laghman provinces) as “one of the most dangerous provinces in Afghanistan.” Ganjgal is one of several villages in the area that have historically served as way stations for smugglers and, more recently, insurgents moving men and weapons from base camps in Pakistan. Ganjgal, located at the eastern end of a long, narrow valley, is a hamlet of about 60 buildings of “layer-cake” design wedged up the slope and overlooking the valley. Terraced fields extend out from the village along the north and south valley walls. Additional fields, bordered by ancient rock walls, cover the valley floor in front. From a distance, the village looks like a fortress, which, given the lawless history of the region that reaches back centuries, it probably once was.
The role of ETTs is similar to the historic function of Special Forces teams: advise and train indigenous units so that they can successfully conduct operations on their own. ETT 2-8 was a joint Marine and Army unit. Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, of Louisville, Ky., was the commander. His operations officer was Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, who was born in Nigeria and raised in New York City. The American trainer of the Afghan Border Police element was Army Capt. Will Swenson of Seattle, Wash. Camp Joyce, their forward operating base – named after Lance Cpl. Kevin Joyce who was killed there in June 2005 – was one of a number of remote forward operating bases in the area. Because insurgents so regularly attacked the base with rockets and mortars, the Americans had nicknamed it “Rocket City.”
A few weeks earlier, senior Afghan Border Police officers approached top American commanders in the region with a proposal to break the hold of the Taliban in the immediate area around Camp Joyce. The plan called for a two-stage operation, with the first being an attack against the insurgent-held village of Damdara, located about a mile from Ganjgal. The Afghan Border Police officials believed that the government seizure of Damdara and promises of military protection against Taliban reprisals and civic action aid projects would convince the Ganjgal village elders to switch sides. The prospect of reducing the rocket and mortar attacks on Camp Joyce, kick-starting local construction and other aid projects, and strengthening cooperation between Afghan troops and police was attractive, and plans were quickly drawn up.
The attack against the insurgents in Damdara was launched on Sept. 3. After a brief exchange of gunfire, which caused no casualties on either side, the insurgents retreated and Damdara accepted the authority of the Afghan government. Shortly after hearing news of the action, Ganjgal’s village elders issued a radio broadcast announcing their rejection of the Taliban and agreeing to accept the Afghan government’s authority.
Afghan National Army (ANA) officials then drew up a plan for providing security and civil affairs, which was refined by the ETT officers. The operation to move into Ganjgal was set for Sept. 7. But, in a final mission briefing on Sept. 6, the Afghan Border Police operations officer raised objections, claiming that the border police unit assigned to the mission was already engaged in supply convoy escort duties and that the mission would have to be postponed one day. This news stunned the Americans and Capt. Talib, the ANA officer commanding the Afghan soldiers assigned to the mission. They were immediately worried that the delay would leave the village elders vulnerable to reprisals from the Taliban, or cause the elders to change their mind.
Swenson requested to speak to the border police operations officer’s superior, but that official was unavailable. Eventually an agreement was reached to delay the mission until the following day, even though that meant the loss of assigned helicopter cover. Coordination of artillery and helicopter support for the mission was the responsibility of Task Force (TF) Chosin, a unit comprised of troops from 10th Mountain Division. Staff officers from TF Chosin assured Williams and Swenson that if an emergency arose helicopter support would “be five minutes away.”
It was still dark when the convoy entered the valley on Sept. 8. Even though they were still several miles from Ganjgal, the troops could see that some buildings in the village had their lights on. Then as the traffic noise from the convoy reached the village, all the lights suddenly went out.
Dawn was beginning to break as the convoy assembled itself at the base of the slope leading up to Ganjgal. Williams organized his unit into four elements: an observation post, a quick-reaction force, a dismounted patrol, and a security element at the objective rally point. Cpl. (later Sgt.) Dakota Meyer, who was on his second tour of duty in the region, was a sniper serving as a turret gunner and driver. Originally part of a four-man ETT that included 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, and Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, Williams tasked Meyer to be part of the security element at the objective rally point. After he had completed reorganizing the unit, Williams signaled for the column to advance, with 1st Lt. Johnson and his men, including their Afghan interpreter, taking point. The troops saw that they would have to walk about a mile up a winding road bordered by terraced fields before they reached the village. With everyone fully alert for trouble, the Marines and soldiers started up the slope to Ganjgal.
At about 0530, the element led by 1st Lt. Johnson reached the first house in the hamlet. That was when the trap was sprung. Suddenly a burst of AK-47 fire shattered the quiet. It was immediately followed by a fusillade of small arms, machine gun, and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire from insurgents in prepared positions from high ground in front and on both sides of the joint force. Cut off from the rest of the force, 1st Lt. Johnson and his men immediately sought cover in a trench at the base of one of the houses.
Strung out along the mile-long switchback, the Americans and Afghan police and soldiers were trapped in a narrow space arranged like ducks in a shooting gallery. It was later estimated that at least 100 and possibly as many as 150 insurgents were involved in the ambush. The insurgents were well trained. While one group maintained a holding fire, other groups expertly used boulders, trees, and rock walls as cover as they attempted to outflank the joint force. Repeatedly the troops were taunted by the Taliban leaders, who claimed they would die just like the Russians who had invaded the region 30 years earlier.
A deadly volley of RPG and machine gun fire struck Williams and the men with him. Williams received a bullet in his left forearm and 1st Sgt. Christopher Garza was concussed by an RPG round that exploded near him. Fortunately, Swenson and Fabayo were unhurt and able to return fire at a group of insurgents trying to flank them.
Cpl. Steven Norman was one of the Marines Williams had ordered to man an overwatch position. Norman was on a ridge with a machine gun, but every time he tried to fire bursts at the enemy, insurgent machine gun and RPG counterfire drove him back down. He later said, “They were firing from every direction. They were well placed. We could hardly see them. They were very coordinated in their fire. When we’d suppress that fire, they’d hit us from somewhere else.”
At one point the Americans heard Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson shout over their intersquad radio, “We’re surrounded! They’re moving in on us! If [you] don’t give me this air support, we are going to die out here.” Meyer requested permission to advance into the kill zone to help. Four times he made the request and four times he was denied permission.
Braving enemy fire, Fabayo dashed forward on foot to try and establish contact with 1st Lt. Johnson and his men, engaging a number of insurgents at close range with his M4 carbine. He found Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook on the ground, bleeding from bullet wounds in the neck and cheek. Fabayo picked up the severely wounded Westbrook and managed to carry the sergeant several hundred yards back to a casualty collection point. Then he and Swenson attempted to drive an unarmored truck up to the cut-off troops’ position. Unable to do so because of heavy enemy fire, they loaded a number of wounded ANA soldiers onto the truck and drove them back to the casualty collection point.
Finally, with 1st Lt. Johnson and his men no longer responding to radio calls, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer decided to act. The team got into a gun truck and drove forward into the kill zone without infantry escort with Rodriguez-Chavez driving and Meyer manning the M203 40 mm automatic grenade launcher.
The gun truck was a large target and became the focus of intense enemy fire. But the pair repeatedly drove in and out of the deadly area, linking up with troops, recovering bodies, and escorting teams out of the kill zone and to the casualty collection point. During one of the trips, Rodriguez-Chavez warned Meyer that they might find themselves stranded in the kill zone. Meyer replied, “I guess we’ll die with them.”
When the M203 jammed and couldn’t be cleared, the team drove back to the objective rally point and transferred to an armored Humvee with a .50-caliber heavy machine gun. Once again, as they traveled into the kill zone, they encountered a trapped team of Afghan troops that they escorted back out. It was during this trip that Meyer was wounded in the arm by RPG and mortar shrapnel. Rodriguez-Chavez tried to get Meyer to go to the casualty collection area, but Meyer refused, claiming the wound was not serious.
Meanwhile, Williams was on the radio with TF Chosin Headquarters. He told them he needed gunships and medevacs, and artillery support – ASAP. With each request, he was assured that the helicopters were just “five minutes away.” But artillery barrages were denied – even smoke shells were refused, the reason being that there were none. Eventually he received a few rounds of white phosphorous. Eighty minutes after Williams had made his first request, the welcome sound of helicopters was heard overhead. The pilots said they couldn’t land, as the fighting was too fierce. But one pilot spotted the trench where 1st Lt. Johnson and his men had taken refuge and dropped a smoke grenade to indicate the position.
It was at this time that Rodriguez-Chavez and Meyer made their fifth attempt to link up with 1st Lt. Johnson and his men. This time they were accompanied by Fabayo and Swenson. When Meyer learned of the location of his comrades, he exited the Humvee and ran forward. Somehow he managed to reach the trench without getting hit. When he arrived, he found that the four Americans and one of the Afghan soldiers with them were all dead, their bodies stripped of weapons and most of their gear. Instead of leaving them there, Meyer decided he was going to bring the bodies of his comrades out. Ignoring enemy fire, together with the help of Swenson and an Afghan Border Patrol officer, Meyer made one trip after another and successfully brought all the bodies out of the trench.
The Battle of Ganjgal lasted almost nine hours. Casualties were heavy. Fighting got so intense that at one point Landay was given Westbrook’s M4 to use; a situation Landay later compared to the incident experienced by fellow journalist Joseph Galloway at Ia Drang during the Vietnam War 44 years ago. Westbrook would later die of his wounds, bringing the number of Americans killed in action to five. Three more Americans were wounded. The ANA force suffered eight killed and 19 wounded. It was unknown how many casualties the insurgents suffered.
Well before the last shots had been fired, the Battle of Ganjgal became surrounded with controversy. After the battle, some of the American participants claimed that the mission had been compromised, and that possibly the whole operation itself was a deliberate setup by the Taliban. Instead of being greeted with open arms at Ganjgal, the force had run into a prepared ambush sprung by a well-armed and well-supplied superior force.
At different stages of the battle, the men saw women and children from the village carrying ammunition to the insurgents. Making matters worse was the breakdown of promised artillery and air support for the mission. Two investigations were initiated. One investigation was conducted by Combined/Joint Task Force 82 headquartered in Bagram. On Nov. 25, 2009, it issued a summary of its findings. The summary listed a variety of command failures in support of the mission and noted: “The absence of senior leaders in the operations center with troops in contact in the … battlespace, and their consequent lack of situational awareness and decisive action, was the key failure in the events of 8 September 2009.” Three senior Army officers were charged with negligence and “severely reprimanded.”
Though there was controversy regarding support – rather, lack of support – for the mission, there was no argument about the courage displayed by the Americans during the battle. Five Bronze Stars with “V” device were awarded. They went to the fallen Marines and corpsman and to Gunnery Sgt. Chad Miller, who manned an overwatch position for more than six hours, spotting and marking targets for helicopter gunfire. In addition, Kenefick was posthumously promoted to gunnery sergeant. On June 10, 2011, Fabayo and Rodriguez-Chavez were awarded the Navy Cross for their heroic actions when, in the words of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, “the world became fire.”
But there was one more decoration undergoing review. Seven months earlier, on Nov. 6, 2010, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos informed reporters at Camp Pendleton, Calif., that a living Marine who participated in the battle had been nominated for the Medal of Honor. Two days later, Marine Corps Times, an independent newspaper covering U.S. Marine operations, revealed that the Marine was Meyer. Because the review process for Medals of Honor is so detailed and thorough, it usually takes two years before the nomination is approved.
Meyer left active duty in June 2010 when his term of enlistment expired. He entered the Marine Corps’ Individual Ready Reserve and was soon promoted to sergeant. Initially, Meyer lived in Austin, Texas. He later moved to his hometown of Greensburg, Ky. On July 18, 2011, Meyer received a phone call from President Barack Obama informing him that his Medal of Honor nomination had been confirmed. On Sept. 15, 2011, almost two years to the day, Meyer became the first living Marine Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War.
When asked how he felt regarding the decoration, Meyer said, “The main thing we need to get from that day is that those guys died heroes, and they are greatly missed. This isn’t about me. If anything comes out of it for me, it’s for those guys.”
The official citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the repeated risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a member of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, Regional Corps Advisory Command 3-7, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on 8 September 2009. When the forward element of his combat team began to be hit by intense fire from roughly 50 Taliban insurgents dug-in and concealed on the slopes above Ganjgal village, Corporal Meyer mounted a gun-truck, enlisted a fellow Marine to drive, and raced to attack the ambushers and aid the trapped Marines and Afghan soldiers. During a six hour fire fight, Corporal Meyer single-handedly turned the tide of the battle, saved 36 Marines and soldiers and recovered the bodies of his fallen brothers. Four separate times he fought the kilometer up into the heart of a deadly U-shaped ambush. During the fight he killed at least eight Taliban, personally evacuated 12 friendly wounded, and provided cover for another 24 Marines and soldiers to escape likely death at the hands of a numerically superior and determined foe. On his first foray his lone vehicle drew machine gun, mortar, rocket grenade and small arms fire while he rescued five wounded soldiers. His second attack disrupted the enemy’s ambush and he evacuated four more wounded Marines. Switching to another gun-truck because his was too damaged they again sped in for a third time, and as turret gunner killed several Taliban attackers at point blank range and suppressed enemy fire so 24 Marines and soldiers could break-out. Despite being wounded, he made a fourth attack with three others to search for missing team members. Nearly surrounded and under heavy fire he dismounted the vehicle and searched house to house to recover the bodies of his fallen team members. By his extraordinary heroism, presence of mind amidst chaos and death, and unselfish devotion to his comrades in the face of great danger, Corporal Meyer reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
This article first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.