“Greater Love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.
St. John 15:3
I often think of these words, spoken about our Lord Jesus Christ, when I read of our warriors’ heroics and contemplate what motivates them to do the deeds they do. Is it really possible for a man to so love his comrades that he willingly sacrifices his life for them? And I do not mean in an abstract way by losing his life while serving his country, but in the visceral, immediate, and deliberate choice to willingly lay down his own life so that others may live.
Diving on a grenade to save your buddies may seem an overused cliché from jingoistic war movies of days gone by, but it has in fact happened so often as to give you pause and make you say “My God, they really did that”.
Twenty-two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and Navy Corpsman (and one Navy LCI commander) during the three week long battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, nearly a quarter of all the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during WWII. Of those, an amazing eight of them were for Marines who willingly dove on grenades to save their comrades. Think of that for a second. You are in a fighting position, or a shell crater, huddled with your brothers in arms when a sizzling instrument of death lands amongst you. Could you, in a half a heartbeat, make the decision to smother it with your own body to save the others? What could possibly motivate those that do? That instant of self sacrifice can not be a thought out decision, but an immediate indicator of the true nature of ones character.
I believe that it is not hate that motivates the American warrior to do what he does, but love. Love of his fellow Marine or soldier. Love of his nation and the ideals it strives towards. And love of us. Each and every one of us, the American citizen peacefully enjoying the freedom they pay for.
Corporal Jason L. Dunham was a 22 year old machine gunner with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Born in the sleepy one light town of Scio NY on November 10th 1981, the Marine Corps’ 206th Birthday, he had joined the Corps in 1999 and went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. His enlistment had ended in June of 2003, but he had voluntarily extended so that he could make his units second deployment to Iraq.
He was a squad leader with Kilo Company’s Weapons Platoon on April 14th 2004 patrolling the town of Husbayah Iraq, near the Syrian border, when a Marine convoy was ambushed. Cpl. Dunham and fourteen Marines quickly loaded up in their humvees and raced towards the scene. As they approached the arched entry gate of Husbayah they heard the tell tale “whoosh” of RPG’s being fired at another unit. Dismounting, they began a search of the narrow alleyways for the shooters.
At 12:15 PM they entered a side street and found a line of seven Iraqi vehicles and began searching each one for weapons. As Cpl. Dunham approached a white Toyota Highlander, an Iraqi man dressed in a black track suit and loafers leapt from the driver seat and grabbed him by the throat. Cpl. Dunham kneed the man in the chest and went to the ground with him, struggling on the road next to the Toyota.
Private First Class Kelly Miller saw Cpl. Dunham and the hajji go to the ground and ran around from the other side of the Toyota. He put the man in a choke hold, trying to pull him off of Cpl. Dunham while Lance Corporal William Hampton rushed in to help.
Lance Corporal Jason Sanders, standing several feet away heard Cpl. Dunham yell “No, no, no…watch his hands!”
Cpl. Dunham had spotted the grenade which the others had not. He un-hesitantly shoved his helmet on top of the grenade and covered it with his body. His fellow Marines later found the pin of the grenade on the floor board of the Toyota, leading them to believe the Iraqi had come out of the car with it already primed. They also believe Cpl. Dunham had seen this when he took him to the ground and knew the grenade was armed when he began fighting him.
The explosion shattered his helmet, blowing it to both sides of the road, and drove shrapnel deep into his brain.
PFC Miller and LCpl Hampton were both peppered with shrapnel but alive. Amazingly, the Iraqi, who was wounded in the stomach, jumped to his feet and ran several feet. LCpl Sanders emptied a magazine from his M16 into his back.
Cpl. Dunham lay unconscious in a spreading pool of his own blood, his brain lacerated by dime sized chunks of metal. But the fight wasn’t over yet. As the Marines tried to tend to Cpl. Dunham, several more Iraqis appeared from behind a corner and opened fire on them. They were driven off by Marine rifle fire, leaving behind two of their own, dead in the street.
Michael M. Phillips, a Wall Street Journal reporter embedded with the unit, writes in his book “A Gift of Valor” that Cpl. Dunham was unrecognizable to his best friend, LCpl Mark Dean until he spotted a tattoo of an Ace of Spades and a skull on his chest. “You’re going to be all right, we’re going to get you home.” Phillips quotes Dean as saying to Jason as they sped to a nearby LZ.
An Army Blackhawk flew Cpl. Dunham to the Battalion Aid Station in al Qa’im where he was stabilized before being flown to the Regimental Surgery Center at al Asad. The Blackhawk crew made the flight in 25 minutes, the fastest run ever; never flying higher than 50 feet so as to keep the air pressure from swelling Cpl. Dunham’s hemorrhaging brain.
From al Asad he was flown to Baghdad, then Landstuhl Germany, and finally Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
It was there that Jason’s parents Dan and Deb Dunham joined him, having been flown there by the Corps.
His condition deteriorated, blood in his urine indicating kidney failure, while one lung had collapsed and the other rapidly filled with fluid. Before joining the Corps Jason had placed his father in charge of medical decisions for him and had told him he did not wish to be kept alive by machines if there was no hope of recovery. “Please don’t let me live like that.” he had told him.
On April 22nd in al Qa’im, 2nd Lt. Robinson gathered the men of Cpl. Dunham’s platoon. He told the assembled Marines of the Dunhams’ decision to remove their son’s life support in two hours’ time.
Marines don’t cry, but in that tent that day LCpl. Dean wasn’t the only Marine to do so. With tear choked eyes he prayed that in the next 120 minutes God would touch his friend and wake him up. He prayed that he could be the LA police officer he had dreamt of. He prayed that Jason could live the life he had wanted to live.
Dan and Deb sat by their son’s side, each holding one of Jason’s hands. Gen. Michael Hagee, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Sgt. Major John Estrada, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, stood beside them. Gen. Hagee placed a Purple Heart on the pillow next to Cpl. Dunham’s shrapnel torn and bandaged head.
At 4:43 PM on Aril 22nd 2004, Jason L. Dunham, Corporal, USMC, died.
He had never regained consciousness.
On January 11, 2007 Dan and Deb Dunham accepted the Medal of Honor from President Bush for their son. President Bush held Deb’s hands while the citation was read, and her body shuttered in grief when she heard Jason’s name. “We’re accepting this honor for Jason,” she said, “but we’re also accepting this in all the servicemen and women’s names”.
The next day Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England said:
“The important thing is that what Jason did lives on after him. If he were here today, he would probably tell you that he is just the caretaker of a medal that many deserved. Jason–and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice–reminds us of the price of freedom.”
As if to echo those sentiments Dan Dunham said of his son: “Jason believed that all men on this earth should be free. He also believed in his friends.”
The best of those friends, Lance Cpl. Mark Dean, told Michael Phillips about a trip to Las Vegas he and his wife Becky Jo had taken with Jason in January, just before 3/7 deployed to Iraq. Talking in the hotel, Jason told them he was extending his enlistment so he could stay in Iraq for the battalion’s entire tour. “You’re crazy for extending,” Lance Cpl. Dean said. “Why?”
Cpl. Dunham replied: “I want to make sure everyone makes it home alive. I want to be sure you go home to your wife alive.”