Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Cpl. Dakota Meyer were joking about the future as the Marines made their way in the early morning darkness to a small village in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley. Their mission: Meet with village elders and talk about security.
Part of an embedded training team working with the Afghan military, they had survived a rocket attack on their base just two days earlier. As they rolled out in their Humvees, the men tried to keep the mood light. This mission was supposed to be routine, but in Afghanistan, you just never know.
"We talked about how we were coming back," said Meyer, now 23, in a phone interview from Kentucky. "I was going to go to college, he was going to work at a college as a military advisor. We talked about how we would have a good time, then go and hang out at his house."
That would never happen. Instead of a quiet meeting with village leaders, a large force of insurgents from the village and surrounding mountains opened fire with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and small arms.
The events of the next few hours on Sept. 8, 2009, would leave the 30-year-old Kenefick, four other Marines and several Afghan soldiers dead and numerous others wounded.
Meyer emerged a hero. After listening to his comrades on the radio repeatedly pleading for air support or artillery help, he disregarded orders, jumped into a Humvee with another Marine and went into the firefight, machine gun blazing.
On Thursday, Meyer will receive the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony, the first living Marine to be so honored in nearly four decades.
Two years after the firefight, Kenefick's mother, Susan Price, is still waging her own war from her Riverview home. She says the military took too long to help her son and is protecting those whose mistakes cost him his life.
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The last time Susan Price talked to her son was on the evening of Sept. 6, 2009.
"He called me twice that day," said Price, fighting back tears in her small Riverview home, on a couch with a quilt stitched in honor of her son.
Kenefick was calling to tell his mother that his base was attacked, but he was fine.
"Here he was, wounded in the arm by shrapnel, and he was calling to reassure me," said Price.
Price said her son had called her many times before from war zones, often in the middle of the night from a Blackhawk helicopter flying back from a special operations mission.
But Price said she got a bad feeling this time.
"There was something different in his voice."
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Price, 53, is the daughter of a Marine and moved to Riverview from Georgia in 2005 to be closer to her son. Her son, a two-time Senior Marine of the Year, came to MacDill Air Force Base that year after serving several years in Iraq doing counterintelligence and human intelligence work.
He was stationed at U.S. Central Command where he served first as an aide to the deputy director of plans, Gen. Mark Kimmitt, then as an aide to the commander, John Abizaid.
"My son had been on special operations missions and there was a period of almost three years when I didn't see him," she said. "I came here because I wanted to be near him."
Kenefick, enthralled by his grandfather's stories about serving in Vietnam with the Corps, always wanted to be a Marine, Price said. A star athlete at Roswell High School in Georgia, where he was the starting quarterback, Kenefick enrolled in the Corps in 1997.
He distinguished himself so well that Abizaid put him up for officer's training school, said Price. But he didn't want to be an officer. He received a promotion to gunnery sergeant, but the paperwork didn't clear until November 2009, after his death.
"He didn't want to lose touch with the young men he was mentoring," said Price, who had taken a job here, marketing for a local doctor's office.
It was in that capacity that she showed up for a meeting of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce on the evening after the firefight half a world way.
The meeting was held at the Riverview Funeral Home.
As she pulled into the driveway, she saw two Marines in dress blues.
She knew why they were there.
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On the morning of the attack, the men stopped at a pre-arranged rallying point. Kenefick, 30, led a patrol down to the village while Meyer was tasked with staying behind with the Humvees and equipment.
Suddenly, the lights in the village went out and the attack began. As the minutes passed, Meyer grew increasingly frustrated as he sat at the rallying point, listening to the frantic calls for help.
As casualties mounted, Kenefick and the others "remained pinned down without support for two hours," according to the Marines' narrative of the action.
"If [you] don't give me this air support, we are going to die out here," 1st Lt. Michael Johnson radioed his base.
Four times, Meyer requested permission to enter the kill zone.
Four times, he was denied.
After the fourth time, "he took it upon himself to leave his relatively safe location," according to the Department of Defense narrative accompanying his Medal of Honor.
He and another Marine hopped in a Humvee. Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez drove as Meyer sat behind the machine gun mounted on the roof. The narrative offers a gripping glimpse of what they experienced.
They drove into the heaviest zone of fire, without the aid of supporting arms, rescued wounded American soldiers, Marines and Afghan forces. The two Marines became the focus of enemy mortars, rockets and bullets.
After several hours, air support finally arrived, a UH-60 helicopter. As the crew hovered over the battlefield, firing on the enemy, they noticed what looked like bodies in a ditch.
Four more times, under heavy fire, Meyer and Rodriguez-Chavez went back into the kill zone .
Wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade and bleeding, Meyer continued on. They were looking for Kenefick's patrol.
On the firth foray, they found the body of Kenefick, still clutching his GPS. He was shot in the cheek, severing his spine. Navy Petty Officer 1C James Ray "Doc" Layton, and Marines First Lt. Johnson and Gny. Sgt. Edwin W. Johnson Jr. lay dead with him. Marine Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth W. Westbrook would later die as the results of his wounds.
But because of Meyer, 13 U.S. servicemen and 23 Afghan soldiers "escaped certain death" during the six-hour battle, according to the military narrative.
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In the months after the ambush at Ganjgal Valley, the Department of Defense investigated how the day went so horribly wrong.
The mission was poorly planned and executed, according to an executive summary issued Nov. 25, 2009.
Those in charge of the mission only expected light resistance, perhaps 10 insurgents at most, not the 50 or more encountered. Field leadership failed as well during the mission, according to the summary. Timely air and artillery support was not provided, investigators concluded.
"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."
Three unnamed officers, whose names were redacted from the report, received general officer memorandums of reprimand, according to the summary.
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Two days before the ambush, Meyer said, Kenefick was pinning a medal on him for his actions during the rocket attack on the base when he joked that, "by the time this is all over with, you might be up for the Medal of Honor."
Those words from his best friend and mentor, he said, "haunt me more than anything."
On Thursday, as Meyer prepares to accept the nation's highest military honor from President Barack Obama at 2:30 p.m., there will be five memorials, at Meyer's request, in honor of the men who died.
"Those are the real heroes," said Meyer, promoted to sergeant after the ambush and now retired from the military and working in construction in Kentucky.
One of those ceremonies will be held at noon on the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Bay to Bay Boulevard in Tampa.
"We will honor my son, a fallen hero," said Susan Price.
But more than a time for memorials, it is a time to ask questions and press the Army, which was supposed to provide cover on the mission, why it took so long to come to the rescue, said Price, who has been approaching Congress and anyone else who will listen
It's not enough, she said, for those in command to receive letters of reprimand.
"It is a dereliction of duty," said Price. "I want justice for my son and the others."