Buffalo News -- June 30, 2005
Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham threw himself on a grenade to save his men-but
his life was extraordinary even before that final moment
By Anthony Violanti
Jason Dunham was a walking Marine poster. The Southern Tier native stood
6-feet, 1-inch tall, with handsome chiseled features and a muscular
body. At 22, he had piercing, dark hazel eyes and was brimming with
charisma and leadership.
On his face was an engaging smile, tattooed on his chest was the ace of
spades. He was a tough Marine corporal with a soft heart, "a good old
country boy" who liked to play pool, flirt and listen to Tim McGraw CDs.
That IS the Jason Dunham that Mark Dean remembers. Not the mortally
wounded, disfigured and bloodstained figure Dean found on a hot and
dusty Iraqi street after Dunham threw himself on a grenade, probably
saving the lives of at least two of his men.
"The face, bloated and bloodied, didn't look familiar. Then (Dean) . . .
realized he was looking at one of his best friends. "Dunham, if you can
hear me, give me a sign,' Dean begged. Jason didn't speak, although Dean
noticed his left leg move a bit. . . Dean prayed to himself and spoke
aloud to Jason to try and keep him steady. . . "You're going to be all
right,' said Dean. "We're going to get you home.'"
The scene was included in "The Gift of Valor," a new book on Dunham
written by Michael M. Phillips and excerpted in Sunday's Parade magazine
in The Buffalo News. Today, Dean still lives with that moment, and with
thoughts of Jason Dunham, who has been recommended for the Congressional
Medal of Honor. The medal, which has only been awarded once for the Iraq
War, would put Dunham among the most select company in military history.
"I think about him every day," Dean said last week in a telephone
interview from California, where he is stationed. "Some days are
tougher, and some aren't."
"Cpl. Dunham had a gift from God," Dean added, his voice breaking.
“Everybody who came in contact with him wanted to be like him. He was
the toughest Marine but the nicest guy. He would do anything for you.
Cpl. Dunham was the kind of person everybody wants as their best friend.
It's hard to explain in words."
In his book, Phillips faced that journalistic challenge. Phillips, an
embeded reporter for the Wall Street Journal, never met Dunham. Phillips
arrived in Iraq in May 2004, a few weeks after the Marine's death. But
Phillips said that everywhere he went, some Marine would tell him about
"I never met Jason, but I kept hearing about him," said Phillips, 42.
"You hear about a man who jumped on a grenade and could get the Medal of
Honor, and right away you know it's a good story."
Phillips wrote a front-page piece on Dunham for the Journal last May. It
struck an immediate, emotional chord with the American public. The paper
received hundreds of letters and emails. Back in Scio, which is near
Wellsville in Allegany County, Dunham's family members said they
received nearly 1,000 letters since the Journal ran his story, which was
also reported in The News.
Dunham's story was one "of extraordinary valor on the part of a brave
Marine," retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said in a statement.
"Everybody seemed touched about one young man who gave everything for
his country," Phillips added.
On the surface, it seemed a simple story: Small-town boy transformed
into a war hero. But, as Phillips discovered, Dunham's life and death
had complex and profound meanings.
Family turmoil filled Dunham's early childhood. Dunham's mother was just
16 and a sophomore in high school when he was born, Phillips writes. Her
boyfriend, Jason's father, soon left her. His mother eventually married
a man named Dan Dunham, but that ended in divorce. He nonetheless
adopted Jason and was granted custody, along with another son named
Dan Dunham married his current wife, Deb, a few years later, and the
couple had two other children - Kyle, 16, and Katelyn, 12.
"We told Jason from the beginning that he was adopted," Deb Dunham said
this week. "It didn't matter, I consider him my son, and we're all one
family. I remember when he was about 6 or so, he would hug me and say,
"You can be my mother."
In Scio, Jason had a passion for baseball and other sports. He was a
popular student at Scio Central School but always rooted for the
underdog. "He was easy-going, but he stuck up for people who needed
help," Deb Dunham said.
Dunham was 17 when he signed up for the Marines during his senior year
in high school. Late in 2003, he found out he was going to Iraq. Before
shipping out, Jason talked to his parents about what might happen if he
didn't come back.
If his wounds left him incapacitated, Phillips writes, Jason told his
father he didn't want to remain on life support.
"Dad, don't let me lay there for a day if I'm going to be that way
In the book, Phillips describes a conversation Jason had with his mother
as he was leaving for Iraq: "As Jason walked to the doorway of his home
to leave, Deb looked at him and said: "You want your dress blues?'
"Yep," Jason replied.
"And you want a full military service?"
“Nothing more was said,” Phillips writes, “they both new they were
talking about Jason’s funeral.”
A prayerful decision
A few months later, shortly before his death, Jason phoned his mother
"I just felt he was saying good-bye," Deb Dunham said last week. "I
don't know if it was premonition, but when you love people, especially
love between a parent and child, you feel a special kind of bond."
On April 14, 2004, Dunham led a 14-man foot patrol into a town called
Karabilah. Dunham approached a line of seven Iraqi vehicles along a dirt
alleyway. An Iraqi in a black suit jumped out of one of the vehicles and
grabbed Dunham by the throat. The two men fought as two other Marines
raced to the scene.
The Iraqi had a grenade in his hand, and Dunham yelled to two Marines
near him, "no, no, no, watch his hand," Phillips writes. The grenade
rolled loose, and the other Marines believe Dunham placed his helmet and
body over it to protect them. It exploded, and Dunham lay face down and
unconscious in his blood.
"Cpl. Dunham was in the middle of the explosion," Pfc. Kelly Miller, 21,
one of the Marines who raced to the scene, was quoted by Phillips. "If
it was not for him, none of us would be here. He took the impact of the
A helicopter flew Dunham, near death, to battalion headquarters in Iraq.
He was then transferred to another base in Iraq before being flown to
the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. That's where Deb and
Dan Dunham went to see their son.
Phillips describes how doctors told the couple the damage was
"irreversible. He would always be on a respirator. He would never hear
his parents or know they were by his side. Another operation to relieve
pressure on his brain had little chance of succeeding and a significant
chance of killing him."
After much thought and prayer, the Dunhams decided to remove the life
"Jason left a living will, and Dan and Jason talked about this," Deb
Dunham said last week. "It was hard to know you have to do this. You
give birth to a child and you love and support and do things for your
child his whole life. You meet your child's needs.
"Ultimately, we felt this was another way we had to meet Jason's needs.
I saw my husband's heart torn out. But we met our child's needs. This is
what he wanted."
View of Iraq War
The thought of a Medal of Honor is helpful for Deb Dunham and her
"It won't bring back my son," she said, "but Dan and I believe Jason is
deserving of the medal. Not because we want him to have it, but because
he earned it on his own merit."
"I was there, and I believe he deserves the medal," Dean said. "If he
doesn't get it, I will be really disappointed because I don't know what
more you can do."
So will the rest of the country when "The Gift of Valor" (Broadway
Books, $19.95) is released Tuesday. Phillips will be in Scio to mark the
occasion, and Deb Dunham will be there with him.
"This has been a very difficult year," she said. "The rawness and sense
of loss for us will never go away. It's easy for people to forget about
the sacrifice Jay made, and as his mother, I don't want anyone to
forget. With this book, Michael has made it possible for people to
The book offers a grunt’s-eye view of life in Iraq. Phillips has an
accessible easy to read, writing style. Like famed World War reporter
Ernie Pyle, Phillips makes the personal side of war a universal
"The book tells what it's really like to be over there," Dean said.
"People in America need to hear about Cpl. Dunham."
About the author
Michael M. Phillips, a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has
done four tours in Iraq with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines. He lives
in Washington, DC, with his wife and two children.
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