During one of his stints as an embedded reporter with Lima Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips tumbled to the story of Marine Corporal Jason Dunham (photo above by Mark Edward Dean). In 2004 the Journal published Phillips’s riveting account of Corporal Dunham’s story: “In combat, Marines put theory to test, comrades believe.” Phillips subsequently expanded the Journal story into The Gift of Valor, published last year.
Corporal Dunham became the first serviceman in Iraq to be nominated for the Medal of Honor, and this past Friday — the day that would have been Corporal Dunham’s twenty-fifth birthday — President Bush announced that Corporal Dunham will be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Phillips reported in Saturday’s Journal:
Cpl. Jason Dunham, a charismatic kid from small-town America, received the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself to protect his fellow Marines from an Iraqi hand grenade.
President George W. Bush announced the award — the country’s highest honor for military valor — at the opening of the Marine Corps museum here yesterday. It would have been Cpl. Dunham’s 25th birthday.
“As far back as boot camp, his superiors spotted the quality that would mark this young American as an outstanding Marine: His willingness to put the needs of others before his own,” Mr. Bush said. “As long as we have Marines like Cpl. Dunham, America will never fear for its liberty.”
On patrol on April 14, 2004, Cpl. Dunham found himself engaged in hand-to-hand combat with an insurgent near the Syrian border. When his attacker dropped a live hand grenade, the Marine made the split-second decision to cover the weapon with his own helmet, shielding two of his men from its full explosive force.
The other Marines staggered away from the blast, injured but alive. Cpl. Dunham suffered deep shrapnel wounds to the brain. He survived eight days in a coma, only to die with his parents at his bedside. He was 22 years old.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” said Cpl. William Hampton, one of the Marines fighting beside Cpl. Dunham when the grenade exploded. The explosion left Cpl. Hampton, a 24-year-old from Woodinville, Wash., peppered with shrapnel. “I see my arms, I see my leg. I’m always reminded of it.”
Cpl. Dunham grew up in Scio, a one-stoplight town in western New York. His father, Dan Dunham, works in a nearby factory; his mother, Deb Dunham, teaches home economics. Jason was the oldest of four children and a star athlete, with a winning grin and a natural kindness.
He was an eager volunteer when the Marine recruiter spotted him at the local Kmart before his senior year in high school. Soon his lead-from-the-front approach won him the admiration of those above and below him, and he was given command of a 10-man infantry squad when his unit — Kilo Co., Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment — deployed in early 2004 to the hostile desert towns of Husaybah, al Qa’im and Karabilah.
Due to complete his enlistment that July, Cpl. Dunham extended his service by several months to remain in Iraq through the battalion’s entire combat tour because, as he told a friend at the time, “I want to make sure everyone makes it home alive.”
In the days after he was injured, Cpl. Dunham passed through a series of military hospitals and underwent brain surgery. He never, however, awoke from his coma. His parents met him at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., expecting to spend months nursing their son back to health. Instead, doctors told them that the damage was too severe and that the corporal would never again understand the world around him. Following the instructions Cpl. Dunham left in his living will, the Dunhams authorized the doctors to remove him from life support.
“In the end, Cpl. Dunham, you proved that one man can make a difference,” his former company commander, Maj. Trent Gibson, said in June at a ceremony renaming Scio’s post office after the fallen Marine. “You proved to be utterly selfless, uniquely compassionate, and absolutely committed to your men…You were that which we all strived to be. And you were somehow more pure.”
A photo of the shredded remains of the corporal’s helmet was among the pieces of evidence the battalion included when it nominated the corporal for the Medal of Honor shortly after he died.
Cpl. Dunham’s life and death were chronicled in a page-one story in The Wall Street Journal on May 25, 2004.
The award is often called the Congressional Medal of Honor because Congress authorized it during the Civil War. Including Cpl. Dunham’s, 3,462 medals have been awarded, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Cpl. Dunham’s is the second awarded for gallantry in the Iraq war. The first went to Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, who was killed while manning a machine gun against scores of Iraqi soldiers at Baghdad’s airport in April 2003.
The president is expected to present the medal itself to Cpl. Dunham’s parents at a White House ceremony at a later date.
The online version of Phillips’s story includes a video of Major Gibson visiting the scene of Corporal Dunham’s heroics and telling the story to Phillips. Today’s New York Sun claims Corporal Dunham as “A hero of New York,” but his sacrifice is one that we will all have to redeem.
JOHN adds: The Phillips family is talented beyond any reasonable explanation. A few weeks ago, my wife Loree and I attended a lunch program at which Michael Phillips and his brother Arthur read from their respective books and answered questions about the literary craft. It was one of the most interesting events I’ve attended in a long time. Michael Phillips, author of The Gift of Valor, is a bright guy and a terrific writer. His brother Arthur seems a polar opposite in some ways, but is also a professional writer. Arthur is, I think, a kind of genius. He is a novelist, and after attending the program I read The Egyptologist, an epistolary novel which unabashedly traces its lineage to one of my favorite books, Pale Fire. It’s a remarkable book, and I’m sure Arthur has many more to come.