With Dakota Meyer standing at attention in his dress uniform, sweat glistening on his forehead under the television lights, President Barack Obama extolled the former Marine corporal for the "extraordinary actions" that had earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor.
Obama told the audience in the White House East Room on Sept. 15 that Meyer had driven into the heart of a savage ambush in eastern Afghanistan against orders. He'd killed insurgents at near-point-blank range, twice leapt from his gun turret to rescue two dozen Afghan soldiers and saved the lives of 13 U.S. service members as he fought to recover the bodies of four comrades, the president said.
There's a problem with this account: Crucial parts that the Marine Corps publicized and Obama described are untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, according to dozens of military documents McClatchy examined.
What's most striking is that all this probably was unnecessary. Meyer, the 296th Marine to earn the medal, by all accounts deserved his nomination. At least seven witnesses attested to him performing heroic deeds "in the face of almost certain death."
But sworn statements by Meyer and others who participated in the battle indicate that he didn't save the lives of 13 U.S. service members, leave his vehicle to scoop up 24 Afghans on his first two rescue runs or lead the final push to retrieve the four dead Americans. Moreover, it's unclear from the documents whether Meyer disobeyed orders when he entered the Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009.
The statements also offer no proof that the 23-year-old Kentucky native "personally killed at least eight Taliban insurgents," as the account on the Marine Corps website says. The driver of Meyer's vehicle attested to seeing "a single enemy go down."
There is no doubt Meyer deserves recognition. Braving withering fire, he repeatedly returned to the ambush site with Army Capt. William Swenson and others to retrieve casualties.
He suffered a shrapnel wound in one arm and was sent home with combat-related stress. Meyer's commander, Lt. Col. Kevin Williams, commended him for acts of "conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his life ... above and beyond the call of duty."
The approval of Meyer's medal - in an unusually short time - came as lawmakers and serving and former officers pressed the military services and the Pentagon to award more Medals of Honor because of the relatively few conferred in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only 10 of the decorations have been awarded since 2001, seven of them posthumously.
Meyer is the first living Marine since the Vietnam War to be awarded the honor. It was first bestowed in 1863.
As the Afghan and Iraq wars wind down, senior Marine Corps officials conceded the pressure to award more medals, and to do it quickly.
One senior Marine official told McClatchy that the service felt that it deserved the decoration after having served in the most violent areas of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In response to McClatchy's findings, the Marine Corps said it stood by the official citation that was produced by the vetting process. Asked to explain the individual discrepancies and embellishments, the Marines drew a distinction between the citation and the account of Meyer's deeds that the Marines constructed to help tell his story to the nation. They described that account as "Meyer's narrative of the sequence of events," which Marine officials said they didn't vet.
Hours before this McClatchy report was published, the Marine Corps inserted a disclaimer into its official online account of Meyer's heroic actions. The Web page now reads that the summary "was compiled in collaboration" with Meyer and Marine Corps Public Affairs.
A historian of military medals, Doug Sterner, expressed disbelief at the idea that the Marine Corps would publicize an account of a complex battle based solely on the recipient's recollections.
"Give me a break," Sterner said. "A recipient is responsible for writing his narrative? I have never heard of such a thing."
The fallout could obscure Meyer's genuine acts of heroism and threaten a book contract, speaking engagements and other deals that have lifted him from the obscurity of rural Greensburg, Ky., to fortune and national renown, including famously having a beer with Obama at the White House the day before the ceremony.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Meyer declined to comment.
McClatchy found that the claim that Meyer saved the lives of 13 U.S. Marines and soldiers couldn't be true. Twelve Americans were ambushed - including this correspondent - and of those, four were killed. (One wounded American would die a month later.) Moreover, multiple sworn statements affirm McClatchy's firsthand reporting that it was the long-delayed arrival of U.S. helicopters that saved the American survivors.
There are no statements attesting to Meyer killing eight Taliban as recounted on the Marine Corps website. The driver of Meyer's vehicle, Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, reported seeing Meyer kill one insurgent.
No sworn statements - including one Meyer gave to military investigators five days after the battle - refer to him leaping from the Humvee's turret to rescue 24 wounded Afghan soldiers on his first two runs into the valley.
Four sworn statements, including Rodriguez-Chavez's, undermine the claim that he and Meyer drove into the valley against orders. And the documents indicate that it was Swenson who led the final drive to retrieve the fallen Americans, taking command of Meyer's Humvee after ditching his bullet-riddled Ford Ranger. Meyer rode in the Humvee's back seat.
The inflated versions of events were prepared at the Marine Corps' Public Affairs office at the Pentagon by a special working group assembled for the task, a knowledgeable official said.
The Marines excluded Williams - who was shot and wounded in the left arm during the battle and won a Bronze Star for valor - from Meyer's ceremony at the White House.
Also excluded was Capt. Ademola Fabayo, who won the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor, for his role in Ganjgal.