Afghan survivors of Ganjgal battle dispute official account of Medal of Honor feats

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 13, 2012 

— Nine Afghan soldiers who survived a 2009 battle that brought the first Medal of Honor to a living Marine since the Vietnam War have disputed the official accounts of how Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer won the country’s highest military decoration.

The Afghans, whom U.S. military officials never interviewed , contradict key details of the narratives cited by President Barack Obama and the Marine Corps in awarding the decoration to Meyer for his actions during a battle that took place in the Ganjgal Valley in Afghanistan three years ago this past weekend.

The Afghans said that Meyer, who received the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on Sept. 15, 2011, couldn’t have killed up to eight insurgents as they charged his Humvee and that he didn’t twice vault from the vehicle to load up two dozen Afghan soldiers and drive them to safety. They also insisted that it was the belated arrival of U.S. helicopters – not Meyer’s intervention – that ended the Taliban ambush, allowing the withdrawal of U.S. and Afghan troops who’d been trapped in the valley.

The Afghans didn’t dispute that Meyer, of Greensburg, Ky., who’s now a 24-year-old sergeant in the Marine reserves, risked his life by braving enemy fire in helping U.S. and Afghan personnel recover the bodies of four American servicemen.

Questions about what Meyer did during the battle touch on the rigor and integrity of a military awards process that’s supposed to leave no margin of doubt or possibility of error in granting the nation’s highest military honor. A McClatchy investigation published last December showed that many of the feats attributed to Meyer by the Marine Corps and the White House were embellished or invented and weren’t substantiated by sworn statements from Meyer himself and others who participated in the battle.

McClatchy raised more questions about the process in August, when it revealed that another Medal of Honor nomination from the same battle, for former Army Capt. William Swenson, conflicted with parts of the official narratives of Meyer’s achievements.

Swenson’s nomination mysteriously disappeared from military computers, though it was reinstated eventually and is awaiting Obama’s approval. Under normal circumstances, according to Pentagon regulations, that approval had to come by last Saturday, the third anniversary of the battle, but Pentagon officials say that because the original nomination went awry the president has two more years to make a decision.

Questions about whether the Marines embellished Meyer’s feats came against a backdrop of pressure on the Pentagon over how Medals of Honor have been handled during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many in Congress, veterans groups and the military complaining that too few had been granted. The Marine Corps reportedly also was frustrated by what it saw as insufficient acknowledgement of its sacrifices in both conflicts.

The Afghan survivors of the battle, however, have no stake in the outcome of discussions of Meyer’s feats, making their recollections valuable in sorting through conflicting information.

More is at stake than the military awards process. Meyer’s forthcoming book, for which he shared a six-figure advance, according to a publishing industry executive who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss it, contains new details about his actions, according to a report Aug. 20 in the Marine Corps Times, which obtained an advance copy of the book. They include a claim that Meyer killed an insurgent with a rock in hand-to-hand combat, something that isn’t mentioned in any official account or military document.

Meyer, responding Tuesday in a telephone interview to the Afghan survivors’ recollections, said, “I don’t care what Afghans say. They don’t speak the same language.”

He said that he’d killed insurgents during his runs into the ambush zone but didn’t count how many. “Where did you ever have me saying numbers?” he asked. When he was told that an account attributed to him published on the Marine Corps’ website said he’d “killed at least eight Taliban insurgents,” he replied, “You should talk to the Marine Corps.”

The Marine Corps remained adamant in the defense of its account of Meyer’s actions.

“Two comprehensive investigations, eyewitness statements, a command inquiry and other supporting documents present clear, compelling and well-documented justification that Sergeant Meyer deserves our nation’s highest military honor,” a Marine Corps statement said. “Any attempt to denigrate Meyer’s bravery or the merit of his Medal of Honor is regrettable.”

The Ganjgal battle produced a raft of other decorations for bravery after as many as 60 Taliban insurgents ambushed some 90 Afghan troops and border police, their American military trainers and a McClatchy correspondent who were on a patrol to meet village elders. Ten Afghans, three Marines and a U.S. Navy medic were killed, and a wounded U.S. Army sergeant died a month later.

The battle also resulted in reprimands for dereliction of duty for two Army officers, for failing to call in timely air, artillery and ground support.

Meyer wasn’t among those caught in the ambush; he arrived as the recovery operation began. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor for helping to recover casualties at the risk of his life.

The McClatchy correspondent who was embedded with Meyer’s unit of Marine trainers at the time of the ambush interviewed the nine survivors from the Afghan National Army’s 1st Kandak, 2nd Infantry Brigade, 201st Corps, in Kabul, in the eastern city of Jalalabad and at a small U.S.-Afghan base in Asmar, a mountain backwater in insurgency-wracked Kunar province, about 30 miles north of Ganjgal.

The men, none of whom had heard of Meyer’s Medal of Honor, spoke with permission from the Afghan Ministry of Defense. They were aided in their recollections by overhead photographs of the U-shaped valley of descending terraced fields divided by waist-high stone walls, and a Google Earth topographical model of the battlefield constructed by a military professional using date, time and location data obtained from digital pictures shot during the ambush.

The Afghans differed on some details, such as the timing of some developments. Several explained that they were illiterate and couldn’t read a watch.

All nine, however, were consistent in saying that the belated arrival of U.S. helicopters forced the insurgents to withdraw, allowing the pinned-down Afghan and American troops to pull back.

“The arrival of the helicopters had a 100 percent impact on the enemy,” said Maj. Talib Khan, 54, of Kabul, who was the senior Afghan officer caught in the ambush. “It was because of the firing by the helicopters that we were able to evacuate our wounded.”

His version was backed by Nematullah, a 30-year-old private from Fakhar, in northern Takhar province, who suffered three gunshot wounds to his abdomen. Nematullah uses just one name, like many Afghans.

“When the air support arrived, everyone who’d taken cover behind the rocks or terraces was able to leave the valley,” he recalled. “The helicopters saved us.”

Several of the Afghans disputed the official accounts that Meyer had jammed two dozen Afghans into his vehicle during two runs, saying there weren’t that many where the Humvee had stopped.

One, Afghan Army Sgt. Ataullah, 29, said he clearly recalled what had taken place. He was gravely wounded in the ambush, with a cheek slashed open by a Taliban bullet and a scarf knotted around a thigh to stanch bleeding from another, when a Humvee roared up.

As gunfire sparked around them, a Marine jumped from the vehicle, “picked me up and drove me to safety,” he said. But Ataullah contradicted the official version, saying his rescuer was Marine Gunnery Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, not Meyer.

“He worked with me in HQ (headquarters) Company. He got off the Humvee and put me in it,” Ataullah said. “The driver got out. The other guy (Meyer) was in the turret, firing . . . a .50-caliber machine gun.”

Five days later, Ataullah said, Rodriguez-Chavez visited him as he recuperated from his wounds in a U.S. clinic, and “he asked me how I was doing and how I was feeling.”

McClatchy asked Marine Corps Public Affairs to make Rodriguez-Chavez available for questions, but it said he declined to be interviewed.

All nine Afghans said Meyer couldn’t have killed up to eight Taliban as they charged his vehicle on a third run.

Afghan troops advancing into the valley with the U.S. helicopters’ belated arrival recovered only two enemy bodies, they explained, and several said that both had died before Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez drove in. One was found next to the rock-strewn wash that provides the only drivable track between the walled terraces, and the other was recovered from a terrace nearer to the village.

Nematullah, a rocket-propelled grenade gunner who’d exhausted his ammunition, related how the pair of insurgents – he said he saw the bodies at his base later that day – confronted him after they’d made their way down the southern valley slope as the ambush raged.

“They saw me . . . and I pointed the empty rocket launcher at them. They were more cowardly than me. When I pointed the empty rocket launcher at them, they dropped to the ground,” he recalled. “I ran from there. I was wounded, but I could still run.”

“I didn’t see any Taliban on the track,” asserted Sgt. Mohammad Gul, 26, of Sayed Karam, in Paktia province, who helped retrieve casualties after spending most of the ambush guarding vehicles with Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez about a mile from the village.

Gul said he drove an unarmored light Ford truck ahead of Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez on the first run into the ambush zone, and he returned numerous times. “The Taliban did not fight close to the track,” he said.

Capt. Mohammad Sharif, an intelligence officer who wasn’t involved in the battle, said the two dead insurgents were from Ganjgal and that he’d delivered their corpses to local officials, who returned them to their families.

U.S. special forces and Afghan troops found no other bodies during a house-to-house search of the village after the battle, said Sharif, who added that the Afghan force remained in the hamlet until the following morning.

All nine Afghan survivors said there weren’t any Taliban fighting close to the track who could have charged Meyer’s vehicle during the casualty recovery operation. To begin with, they recounted, there were U.S. helicopters overhead, firing at any insurgents they spotted.

“There were no Taliban down in the valley,” said Arab Khan, a 29-year-old private from eastern Panjshir province who was on the southern slope in an “overwatch” position, exchanging fire with insurgents on hilltops. “I didn’t see any Taliban down on the track. At that point, the helicopters were above the valley. The Taliban wouldn’t have dared move.”

Many Afghan and American troops escaped down the rocky wash on which Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez drove in, and they would have been shot by any Taliban fighting there, the survivors said.

“There was no enemy to our rear,” Ataullah said. “There were only friendly forces behind us.”

McClatchy special correspondent Ali Safi in Kabul contributed to this report.

The ambush at Ganjgal, Sept. 8, 2009

McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay talks about the ambush of U.S. and Afghan troops he was embedded with on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009. For reporter, no doubt: 'I'd use the rifle if I had to'

Email: jlanday@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jonathanslanday

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