FINISH THE GAME
“I hope to have God on my side,” President Lincoln wrote in 1862,
regarding the Union’s chances for victory in the Civil War, “but
I must have Kentucky.”
That independence of spirit that you might call the nation’s soul is
alive and well in the farming communities of central Kentucky.
My tiny town of Columbia might be considered poor by some standards. We
don’t look at it like that. We enjoy being on our own, making do with
what we scratch out for ourselves. The land is the reason people stay,
generation after generation. If you drive through Columbia, you’ll see
modest homes and trailers on slab foundations, set near the road. Fields
stretch out where cattle and horses graze. Nowadays, farming provides
only a supplemental income for most families. Commutes of twenty to
sixty miles are common to hold down day jobs. But the land keeps
people returning to their homes at the end of the workday—this feeling
of space that comes with owning the acres outside your back door.
I’m not saying it’s always wonderful. My home life growing up was
like tumbling inside a washing machine as I shuttled around the middle
of Kentucky with my mother. She was never content to stay in one place,
or with one man, for too long. She was as smart as she was independent,
though, and always landed some job that brought in a little money.
Summers provided stability because my mother let me stay for weeks at
Mike Meyer’s farm. Mike was briefly married to my mother, and he
legally adopted me when I was born. As for my biological father, I had
no contact with him. I learned early on that just because you come from
the same blood as someone doesn’t mean they are family. Big Mike Meyer
was my real dad as far as I was concerned.
Big Mike, a University of Kentucky graduate, owned a
threehundred-acre farm in Greensburg. He worked for Southern States, a
farmer-owned cooperative, and brought in extra cash by raising beef
cows. He lived in a plain house surrounded by open fields, with no
curtains on the windows or pictures on the walls. He came home each day,
put on his overalls, and tended to chores. Big Mike liked a steady
routine, hunting, and the satisfaction of a well-run farm.
His dad, Dwight, owned a bigger farm on the other side of the creek.
Dwight had served in the Marines and had later been an engineer. He
held himself and others to rigid standards, as if he could see the
proper ways of living by looking through his surveyor’s scope. He was,
and still is, a fair but hard-to-please man. Despite my falling short
fairly often, he always seemed to think I was someone worth having in
the family. If you can feel that from your family, nothing can touch
When asked to describe my nature, Big Mike likes to tell the story of
the ATV. Big Mike kept his all-terrain vehicle in the shed next to the
house. Consisting of a motor, a seat, and three or four wheels, the ATV
is the twentieth-century horse on farms across America. It goes anywhere
on a few gallons of gasoline and you don’t have to shovel out the
stable afterward. It can speed across fields, splash through creeks,
and claw up hillsides. Without the ATV, life on a farm would be pure
As a four-year-old, I was obsessed with it. I’d perch on the seat for
hours, begging Dad to take me for one more ride. Finally, he decided to
teach me a lesson.
“Ko,” he said, which was my nickname, “I have work to do. No more
rides. When you’re big enough to start the machine yourself, you can
drive it yourself.”
Since you had to kick-start it like a balky motorcycle, Dad thought it
would be a year or more before I could do that. He’d sit on the stoop
after work, smiling as I pushed my little legs down, time and again.
This went on for weeks. The angrier I got, the more I tried. The thing
would not budge. We are both pretty stubborn.
Big Mike was in the kitchen when he finally heard chug-chug and rushed
outside to see me smiling brightly. I’d figured out how to climb
up on the seat and jump down on the kick lever with all forty pounds of
me until that damn ATV started. So he let me take it for a spin.
When I was eight, Dad brought me to his favorite tree stand on a cool
October morning before dawn. He was brushing leaves away to climb up
into the stand when a deer walked into the open behind him, not fifty
feet from us.
“Dad,” I whispered, “there’s a deer.”
He squinted over his shoulder in the thin light. “If it has horns,”
he whispered, “shoot it.”
I let go with a shotgun. The deer leaped straight up in the air and
crashed down on its side without quivering. I had killed an eight-point
When we butchered the carcass, I was so excited that the warm guts and
the heavy smell of the blood didn’t bother me. In the years after
that, hitting moving animals and birds gradually became second nature.
Cutting up fresh kills, ugly as that sounds, accustomed me to what I
would encounter a decade later on the battlefield.
I had been in grammar school only a few years when my mother called
Big Mike to say it seemed best if I stayed with him permanently.
One short phone call and my life had changed for the better.
When I was eleven, my school held a contest for the best public speaker
in each grade, and Big Mike encouraged me to enter.
I wrote down what I wanted to say, and Dad and I practiced my lines at
least ten times a day.
“Slow down when you speak,” he said. “Think about your main
message and say it clearly.”
Each speaker had three minutes. When it was my turn, I talked about
Tinker Bell, the Cowboy Cow. We had no horses on our farm, so I picked
out this big old cow and petted and talked to her every evening. When
she learned to come to my voice, I rewarded her with peaches and Dr
Pepper. Eventually, I was riding her to herd the other cows and lasso
them. I concluded my speech by declaring that Tinker Bell and I could
win any cow race in the county, maybe in the whole state.
My little speech won first prize for the sixth grade. From that tiny
victory, I developed a confidence in speaking up that would later
exasperate Marine sergeants (and cause me some grief on occasion).
Each year, Dad gave me responsibility for ever more serious chores. When
I was in the seventh grade, Grandfather Dwight—Dad’s dad— came by
one fall day while I was driving the big tractor, spiking balls of hay.
This meant I was constantly shifting in the seat to look down at the
steel forks and keep them aligned. Grandfather Dwight lit into me with
his booming voice. He thought I’d tip over the tractor and be crushed.
When Dad got home an hour later, one glance told him what was going on
with the tractor and me and Grandpa. I was trembling and shaky. Dad put
his arm around me and looked at his father.
“He knows what he’s doing,” he said. “Ko, you go finish moving
When I was in the eighth grade, we were still growing tobacco on our
farm. In summer, when the broad leaves on the tobacco plants reached as
tall as a man, you’d hack off the stem and thrust a wooden pole
through the leaf. When you’d speared ten stalks—twenty or more
pounds—you’d stack the load in the patch for a few days, or toss it
onto a trailer to take and hang in the barn.
Mexican itinerant workers came to do the cutting. The pay was ten cents
a spear. I asked Dad to hire me. I would work for an hour and then
collapse for two. The Mexican workers stayed in the fields ten hours a
day, hoisting sixty spears an hour. They were the hardest-working
men I’ve ever seen.
You could wear long-sleeved clothes, gloves, and a mask or kerchief to
protect yourself while cutting. I chose not to, so all that tobacco
would rub in through my sweat. After work, I’d vomit until I had
retched out the nicotine poison. One night I couldn’t stop throwing up
and Dad rushed me to the hospital. Even after they pumped fluids into
me, I was so dehydrated I couldn’t pee. The nurses were about to put
in a urinary catheter when my dad, laughing at my expression, persuaded
them not to. Most small farmers quit raising tobacco after the legal
settlements in the late ’90s. I often wondered what became of those
tough, cheerful Mexican workers.
I did all right in school, especially in math. Dad did not let up on
me. When I left the laundry half done one day—I had stayed out too
late and, for once, got home after he did—he had tossed the laundry
out onto the lawn so I could start over and do it right.
But he didn’t do stuff like that often because he didn’t need to—
I was listening and learning.
Grandfather Dwight helped me with math and geometry as I went
further in school. Being an engineer, he showed me that a formula is
just like a little machine you needed to figure out.
“It’s all simple logic, once you can see it right,” he told me.
“If you put it together right, it runs. If you don’t, it
won’t.” I liked the fact that math was black and white, yes or no,
right or wrong, with no bullshit gray zones.
In high school sports, I wanted to be a running back. I was too big to
dodge around quickly, though I could smash into the opponents just fine.
To improve my agility, I put bales of hay out in the fields and
practiced dodging through them.
Coach Mike Griffiths became a third father figure for me. By my
sophomore year, I was the starting back in junior varsity. For me,
football was a game of high-speed chess—you are looking for holes,
thinking a few moves ahead, exploiting weaknesses, and looking for
cover. You are zigzagging into the fight or out of it toward the goal.
I dated girls and enjoyed high school life—I tended toward tiny
brunettes—but my life was mostly a gladiator school of, by, and for
three demanding men—four including myself.
All that testosterone made me a little rough around the edges. I tried
to have some sensitivity around sensitive people, but generally, I would
rather have punched a guy and gotten punched back. I have a sweet
cousin, Jennie, who is my age. We were in the same high school and I
said something to her that was a little mean. It wouldn’t have been
anything if I had said it to her in our own backyard, as she would have
just given me a face and thrown something at me. But around her friends,
it came off differently. She went home upset.
Her dad, Uncle Mark, drove her over to our house and asked me to look at
how upset she was—“Ko, if you don’t stand up for your family,
you’ll never have anything worthwhile in life,” he said. Dad was
there, too, arms crossed, nodding his agreement. I apologized to her and
decided I would have to work on that side of my brain. I would get
Dad didn’t want me to get carried away with that, however. In about
the eighth game of the season, we were playing a team that shut down our
passing game. Coach Sneed, one of my favorite coaches, had me run the
ball a dozen times in the first quarter, mostly power plays straight
ahead into the line. Carry after carry, a pile of big bodies drove me
into the dirt. We scored once, with me buried beneath a thousand pounds
of sweaty, swearing hulks.
By the next quarter, everyone in the stadium knew what every play was
going to be. Grind it out, gain three yards, keep possession, and above
all, don’t fumble. Time after time, I’d tuck the ball into my chest
and slam my ramming arm into three or four speeding refrigerators.
At halftime, after twenty-three carries, I staggered into the locker
room, my left elbow so banged up that I couldn’t bend it. I sat down
in agony. Coach walked over with a bucket of ice, placed my elbow in it,
and led the team back on the field for the second half.
A few minutes later, Dad burst into the locker room.
“Get out there and finish the game,” he said, and stormed out. When
I walked out to the field a few minutes later, Coach looked at my dad up
in the stands and put me back in.
I was driving my four-wheeler out to the end of my road when my cousin
Jennie came speeding by. She hit the brakes and backed up, and we
chatted. As she left, I told her she needed to slow down. She laughed
and said she was always in a hurry. The next day, she crashed fifteen
feet from where we had spoken the night before. She was in a coma for a
time in Louisville. I would go visit her and, just sitting there and
looking at her, I got some work done on the sensitivity thing. I even
whispered, “I love you, everything is going to be all right,” and
she squeezed my hand. It took her a long time and a lot of work, but she
has now graduated from college and gotten married. One thing I can say
is, the Meyer family is not one for giving up. They don’t let you.
That winter, I started in on basketball, practicing like a madman, but I
wasn’t right for it. After a few games, Coach Curry let me know that I
had set a new school record for turnovers. I decided it was my time to
go into retirement to help the team.
That kind of jock community was all I knew about, however, so until
football started up again, I helped the coach and did some motivation
stuff for the team, just to be around my friends and feel useful.
My sensitivity thing was going pretty well, too, until I got into an
argument with a girl and she stuck a pair of scissors into my chest. It
sounds worse than it was. We were hanging decorations in the gym for a
big dance. I made some stupid remark to her—I was actually attracted
to her. It sure didn’t come off well, as she threw her scissors at me
without thinking, and they somehow just stuck in my chest. They
didn’t go deep, but I had a lot of muscles there that just held the
tips, so there they were. People screamed as though I had been murdered,
but I just plucked the scissors out and went for some Band-Aids. Since I
had started the altercation, I got suspended. Until then, I thought
I was doing well on that front, but I had a ways to go.
Dad said I had better get it figured out before I met a girl with a gun.
The school guidance counselor, Ann, was a friend of our family who had
known me all my life. When I needed social coaching or some tips on
talking to girls without getting stabbed, I’d troop into Ann’s
office and sprawl on a chair while she explained the basics: be honest
and upfront, care about what others are doing and what they care about,
don’t tease, listen, listen, listen, and take people’s emotions and
worries seriously. Special reminder: do not make fun of people in
public. Write that on your hand.
I was okay talking to guys. If we had disagreements, why, we could just
start fighting. I was a typical heavyweight in that department. I’d
paw with my left, then plow in with my right, using it like a
pile driver, hammering away. Most times, the other guy and I would end
up grappling for a headlock while banging away, usually ending up on the
ground with torn shirts, scraped elbows, and bruised faces— hoping, by
the way, that our friends would please pull us apart. I figured as long
as my win/lose ratio was at 50 percent, I was doing okay.
When I was fourteen, my best friend, Mike Staton, tagged me with a
roundhouse that knocked me off my feet. A dazzling white light exploded
behind my eyes. At the hospital, the doctor confirmed I had suffered a
serious concussion and should take up another hobby. For quite a few
days, any sudden move sent an electric shock of pain around my skull.
In my senior year, a football injury ended my dream of playing college
ball. I was the stereotypical cocky jock who had fizzled out. True to
form, I tested how far I could push the buttons of some of my teachers.
I got into the habit of leaving school in my Dodge truck at lunchtime
and not returning. Dad didn’t know I was screwing up.
Somehow, I got involved helping a teacher, Mrs. Rattliff, who was
working with autistic kids at the school. Maybe the way they stayed to
themselves made me relate. I asked Mrs. Rattliff if the autistic kids
could use any help.
Well, those kids were amazing. They picked up fast on everything. I
liked seeing them improve. I enjoyed horsing around with them when
lesson time ended. We’d walk down the corridors together, our own
little group of happy misfits.
But, in terms of a football scholarship, I was pretty screwed. I was
walking through the cafeteria in May of my senior year with no idea
where I was headed next. My knee had been stitched up twice and I’d
had three concussions. I had one vague scholarship offer from a
vague college, but even if I faked my way through the entry physical, I
knew my knee wouldn’t last another season. I was washed up as an
athlete and I hadn’t developed strong study habits—I was bored by
academics. I sure didn’t want to waste Dad’s hard-earned money
drinking beer and cutting classes at some college.
I walked by a table with brightly colored brochures set up opposite the
serving line. A rugged-looking sergeant with a crew cut stood behind the
table. He was wearing dress blues. He looked like he owned the state
“Have you been in combat?” I asked.
“Yes, sir, that’s what Marines mostly do,” he said. “Fallujah,
Iraq. It was a shit hole when we got there and worse when we left.”
My granddad didn’t talk much about the Marines, but he was proud
of his service. I knew they were tough.
“Yes, boot camp is rough and not everyone makes it through,” the
sergeant told me. “The pay isn’t bad, seeing as we pay your room and
board and ammunition.”
I asked him some questions. No, he didn’t like the M4 carbine—not
enough stopping power. He preferred the 7.62.
“So do I,” I said. “The .308 can put down a big buck.”
My obvious reference to hunting fell on deaf ears. He wasn’t impressed
with shooting something that couldn’t shoot back.
I felt I was taking an interview and failing. The sergeant was no more
talkative than I was.
“So what are you planning to do?” he concluded, signaling he had
given me enough of his time.
“I don’t know. Probably go to school. Play some college ball.” He
shifted around the brochures.
“Yes, you do that,” he said, “because you’d never make it as a
I knew he was baiting me. He straightened his stack of brochures,
letting the fishing line play out. Right, I couldn’t ride that big
ATV. No sense in even trying. I actually left the cafeteria before
turning around and walking back to his table, his silver hook in my
“You have the papers to sign up?”
“You’re seventeen. Your father has to sign. You’re not grown up
“If I’m going to be in the Marines, I want to be in the infantry. I
want to fight, not sit behind a desk.”
In 2006, our country was in two wars. We had been attacked on 9/11. I
was thirteen when I watched on television as the Twin Towers caved in. I
was more than willing to fight the bastards who had murdered three
“I’ll guarantee you a tryout at boot camp,” the sergeant said.
“If you make it through, you can become a grunt.”
An hour later, he followed me out to our farm, where we sat around
the kitchen table and he told me about the fighting in Fallujah.
“A lot of shots at five hundred meters,” he said, “straight down
“I could hit at that range,” I said. “Uh-huh.”
I don’t know whether he believed me or not. We sat without saying much
more until Dad walked in after work. He looked at the two of us.
“Ko,” he said, “what have you done now?”
The three of us talked for the next hour. There was no hard sell. The
recruiting sergeant and my father left the decision up to me.
“I don’t want to go to college, Dad,” I said. “And I don’t
want to stay here herding cows. I want something better.”
“Well, Ko,” he said, “I don’t disagree with your choice.”
Excerpted from "Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War" by Dakota Meyer. Copyright © 2013 by Dakota Meyer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.