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Reluctant hero and the weight of a medal

The attention that awardees receive can overwhelm

By William Cole

LAST UPDATED: 2:45 a.m. HST, Jul 28, 2011

Former Hawaii Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer will candidly tell you he thinks he's the furthest thing from a hero, and his mother will tell you he really tries to stay out of the limelight.

The Pentagon is expected to contradict the first assertion with the announcement that the 23-year-old Kentucky man will become the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since then-Staff Sgt. Allan Kellogg was recognized for his actions in Vietnam in 1970.

The American public may have a say on Meyer's desire to stay out of the limelight. Just ask Kellogg, who's been there, done that.

"Like I tell the new guys that just got the Medal of Honor, you know, winning the Medal of Honor is the easy part. It's carrying out all the stuff that's expected of you (that can be challenging)," said Kellogg, a 30-year Kailua resident who smothered a grenade with his body and suffered multiple wounds on his torso and shoulder when it exploded.

Meyer's medal hasn't yet been announced by the White House or Pentagon. But his mother, Felicia Gilliam, who also lives in Kentucky, said officials have notified her son that he will receive the nation's highest award for valor.

"Right now, we just know that President Obama has approved it. We don't know when he's getting it or anything," Gilliam said Monday.

MEYER RAN through intense gunfire in a three-sided ambush in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 in an attempt to rescue three fellow Marines and a Navy corpsman who were pinned down.

He had been wounded by shrapnel in the elbow on two previous attempts to rescue the Americans using an armored vehicle that was repelled both times by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

He found the four U.S. service members dead, but while still under fire, Meyer carried their bodies back to a Humvee with the aid of Afghan troops.

Meyer was assigned to Kaneohe Bay and the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. He had deployed to Iraq with the unit about 2007, his father, Mike Meyer, previously said.

Dakota Meyer jumped at the chance when asked if he wanted to be part of an "embedded training team" working with Afghan forces.

In November, after word came that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor, Meyer said he considered himself "the farthest thing from a hero."

"Of course, it would be an honor" to receive the Medal of Honor, he said by phone, "but it would be for my guys — it's not for me."

Meyer has given few media interviews since word spread that the medal was confirmed.

Gilliam said her son is "doing OK" with all the media attention.

"Every time he talks to someone or gives an interview or anything, it's an opportunity for him to remind people that lives are still being lost over there," she said.

She added that Dakota is the type who avoids the spotlight "at all costs."

Kellogg predicts that "he's going to get a blast of it, let me tell you."

When someone receives the Medal of Honor, "you just have to roll with the punches," the retired Marine Corps sergeant major said. "There's a lot expected of you."

U.S. presidents, in the name of Congress, have awarded more than 3,400 Medals of Honor since 1861 for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, according to the Army. There are 85 living recipients.

Kellogg was one of 33 medal awardees who recently visited the Chicago area to speak to students and veterans and promote a Medal of Honor Foundation program.

He figures he attends five Medal of Honor functions a year across the country. Kellogg also works for Veterans Affairs in Honolulu, trying to get benefits for homeless vets and get them off the streets.

Kellogg recalled an event at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif., attended by Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who received a Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan.

"Man, they came from everywhere after him," Kellogg said. "Everyone wanted their picture with him and wanted to talk to him."

Kellogg's path to a Medal of Honor and fame came in the blink of an eye on the night of March 11, 1970, in a rice paddy in Vietnam.

While evacuating a fallen comrade, Kellogg's unit came under heavy fire. Then 26, Kellogg was crouching next to an embankment when an enemy soldier tossed a grenade in his lap.

"What I really planned on doing was, I had it in my hands, I rolled over in the mud in the paddy, and I really planned on pushing it down into the mud and then skating off it and getting away from it," Kellogg said.

He got it into the mud, but then it exploded beneath him.

Kellogg recalled what really helped was that he was wearing his flak jacket and another one he was carrying that had belonged to a fallen soldier.

"That helped a lot, and not being on hard ground, being in the mud, helped. Everything helped," Kellogg said.

The retired sergeant major said after Meyer is awarded the Medal of Honor, he'll try to catch up with him and "take him aside and give him a few words of wisdom" just like earlier recipients did for him.

As Meyer prepares to receive the Medal of Honor, meanwhile, a past Pentagon decision not to award one to another Hawaii Marine, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, hasn't been forgotten in the Marine Corps community.

At least four Marines who were with Peralta in the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq on Nov. 15, 2004, stated in written reports that they saw the short and stocky Marine nicknamed "Rafa" pull an enemy grenade to his body after he had been wounded in an Iraqi house. Peralta was killed.

The 25-year-old Peralta was with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, out of Kaneohe Bay.

A Medal of Honor recommendation passed reviews by the Marine Corps, the U.S. Central Command and the Navy before being rejected by five individuals appointed by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who found "contradictory evidence."

Questions were raised as to whether Peralta, who was hit in the head by a friendly fire gunshot, had the mental capacity to knowingly reach out and pull in the grenade.

Former Hawaii Marine Robert Reynolds, who was in the room with Peralta, believes now, as he did then, that Peralta consciously saved the lives of others.

"My feelings haven't changed. I'm obviously here because of what he (Peralta) did," said Reynolds, who lives in Washington state.

Peralta, who posthumously received the Navy Cross, still deserves the nation's highest award for bravery for saving Marines who were nearby, he said.

"There are seven of us that are still alive today because of him," Reynolds said.

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