With cameras rolling, lights blaring and an intent audience before me, I took to the stage at FEMA’s National Recovery and Resiliency Exercise Conference last Wednesday, ready to rock that crowd (dare I say, like a Hurricane?).
Armed with a few wisecracks, some highfalutin jargon regarding the criticality of information-sharing and some thoughts about the need to include the water sector within emergency planning efforts (what a nerd, I mean expert) – I was the darling of the bureaucratic ball!
That is until an ordinary-looking 23-year-old guy named Dakota Meyer grabbed the microphone and shook me (and everyone else in the room) to my core.
On the outside, ‘Mr. Ordinary’ is a 5’ 10” decent-looking blond dude. But like each of us, it’s what he’s got on the inside that makes his story exceptional.
Two-years ago Dakota was a Marine serving in Afghanistan. On the morning of September 8, 2009, he heard over the radio that four of his comrades had been pinned down by an insurgent ambush. He approached his commanding officer for permission to go help his friends four times. All four times he was denied.
That’s when this when Mr. Ordinary did something truly extraordinary – he disobeyed direct orders and went to try and save his brothers.
Along with a fellow-Marine Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, Dakota “borrowed” a Humvee. With Rodriguez-Chavez behind the wheel and Dakota taking fire from the exposed Humvee’s turret, the two drove (without backup) into the ambush.
Neither expected to survive, and yet still, they pressed on.
Upon entering the kill zone, they immediately spotted some injured soldiers. Without hesitating, Dakota loaded them into the Humvee and took them to safety.
Then the duo drove back into battle – FIVE TIMES!
Each time they entered the fray, there were more troops to save, so they picked them up and transported them to secure locations before heading back into the battle, time and time again.
When all was said and done, Dakota rescued 36 people over a six-hour period while taking down insurgents and getting hit with shrapnel in the arm.
Tragically, the four comrades they had originally gone in for were killed in the ambush.
His remarks at the conference were short and spoken with a reverence that indicated to all present the deep sadness he still feels for having been unable to save his friends. On his way out, he shook some hands and passing me on stage took a moment to pat me on the shoulder – the gentle touch of a brave giant.
The standing ovation he received was unlike any I’d ever seen or heard before.
I’ve been on the South Lawn of the White House with the President, spent time with countless members of Congress, and met all kinds of “important” people, but I’ve never met anyone like Dakota. He wasn’t there to be a policy-wonk, to impress us with his analysis or to further his own agenda. He was there to honor the fallen by sharing his tale. In doing so, he inspired us all.
After leaving the conference, Dakota headed to the White House where he got to have a beer with President Obama (maybe I should say Obama got to have a beer with Dakota).
The next day, he went to the White House again, only it wasn’t for the brew. Dakota received the Medal of Honor (he’s the first living Marine to receive it in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Throughout the ceremony, Dakota displayed the strength of a lion and the humility of a man who (despite his amazing valor) doesn’t consider himself to be a hero.
Such grace is rarely (if ever) seen in this town. Would that we could all have the courage to be as ‘ordinary’ as this guy.