Beliefnet — August 2005
Beyond Fighting for the Flag — Interview by Dena Ross
A new book on Medal of Honor nominee Cpl. Jason Dunham talks about sacrifice and brotherhood in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Corporal Jason Dunham, a Marine who was killed in Iraq, won the People’s Choice vote for Beliefnet’s Most Inspiring Person of 2004. His story came to light in an article by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips, detailing the April 14, 2004 ambush in which Jason threw himself on a grenade, saving the lives of two of his fellow Marines—an act that led to his nomination for the Medal of Honor. Phillips’ recent book, “The Gift of Valor: A War Story,” chronicles Jason’s life in the “one stoplight town” of Scio, New York; the ambush that led to his injury and ultimate death; and the close relationship among the Marines in his unit. Phillips, who was embedded for four tours in Jason’s unit, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, spoke about Jason’s story, the brotherhood that exists in the Marines, and how all of us can find inspiration in the troops, no matter what our feelings about the war.
Tell us a little about Jason’s character—as a person and as a Marine.
He was an incredibly charismatic young man. At 22 he was the sort of guy who people just flocked to. Women liked him and he was good-looking and charming. Men wanted to be with him. He was a terrific athlete. He drew people to him. Some people just have that ability, that power. But what made him different from a lot of people who have that kind of magnetism was that he didn’t abuse it. And so when he was a Marine, the way he led was through example and through carrying forth his men and taking care of them instead of through intimidation. He led in a way that made people want to follow him and not that made people obliged to follow him.
In a lot of ways Jason was the American Marine—he was a young small-town boy. But in the book you also tell stories of the other Marines around Jason. Why was that part of Jason’s story.
The Marine code is that you’re fighting for the man to the left of you and the man to the right of you. Jason obviously did that in a very stark way. He gave his life for the men beside him. But everybody out there has a story. Everybody out there is a person with a family and a history and a future. It seemed very important to me that Jason not be simply an isolated hero, not a caricature but a real person surrounded by other real people who have flaws and virtues just like everybody else. I think it was very important to put him in the context of who these guys are, their fears, their hopes, their beliefs. And for many of them, belief is extremely important when they’re out there in a foxhole.
Can you speak a little more about the brotherhood that exists in the Marines?
Imagine what Jason did. In the flash of an instant he decided to risk sacrificing himself for the guys who were next to him. When that happens, you don’t think “democracy”, you don’t think “flag” necessarily. You’re saying, these are my guys and I’m here to take care of them.
The quote at the beginning of the book by Carl Sandburg [“Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the time comes.”] is really telling. This whole idea that you don’t know just how much courage you have until suddenly you’re tested. All these guys go into boot camp and they’re taught how to react to everything. The Marines, in particular, are taught how to react to fire, how to take the initiative, how to attack, all the sort of standard things, and young people are given huge responsibilities. I think it would be very unusual in the Army for somebody of Jason’s age to have as much responsibility as he did—leading ten guys. You will find 20 and 21-year olds [in the Marines] who are leading with other men’s lives in their hands. They’re all trained extremely well, but even so, they face that doubt—how will I do when the moment comes for me? Will I be as brave as the Marines who were in Hiroshima? Will I be like the guys who were in Okinawa?
Jason had never really seen combat before until that day. He had been only vaguely under fire during an earlier patrol. And related to the question of how brave am I going to be is, am I going to let down the guys next to me?
I think the greatest fear of almost any Marine—and I’m sure soliders and sailors and airmen as well—is letting down their buddies.
Lance Corporal Akram Falah was a very interesting figure in the book—a Palestinian raised in America, born in Kuwait, a convert to Christianity from Islam who joined the military in hopes of obtaining his U.S. citizenship. When he was injured in the ambush, he asked, “Does America love me? Does God love me?” Do you find that a lot of Marines have these kinds of feelings—doubting that America was behind them?
A number of the troops [who have been in Iraq] since the invasion initially feared that the reaction to them would be like the reaction that was received by Vietnam vets when they came home. I don’t think that was a reasonable fear. America has learned a lot about the treatment of our troops, no matter how you feel about the war. So I think that was an unfounded fear.
A number of the troops that I talked with would ask, “Are we going to get spat on when we get home? Are we going to get shunned by the rest of America?” So there was a fear, at least initially, by some of those guys. After their first tour [when] they came home to a hero’s welcome, they realized that that was not a danger anymore–no matter how people feel about the war itself, nobody is taking it out on the troops.
That said, I think that Falah is a special case because of his heritage. He is an Arab, he is not an American citizen. [He’s] an American resident [who] grew up in the shadow of Disneyland, so he’s very Americanized. His parents were immigrants, just making their way in the country in the last few years. And so for him, and for the emotion of that moment of being wounded, of feeling this sense that he somehow failed the colonel, his recent religious conversion, all those things, I think, drilled him into a crescendo of questions and enthusiasm and obscenity at times. His questions, “Does America love me? Does God love me?” sort of came out of that incredibly potent mix of ethnicity, religion, and sense of duty.
He managed to stay in the Marine Corps, which I wasn’t sure he’d be able to do given his injury, [and is now] a corporal, presumably going back for [another] tour.
He’s seriously injured and he’s worrying about the colonel?
Yeah. They really were his fathers and his brothers. His family crumbled to a certain degree. When they got to the states it just didn’t hold together. He really felt like the Marines were his family, particularly the colonel was a substitute father. The idea that he could in any way let [him] down, he just couldn’t take that thought. I mean, the guy was going into surgery singing the Marine Corps hymn after having an artery in his arm severed by a bullet!
Do you feel the media has done a good job of covering the war and the soldiers fighting it?
Yeah, I really do. There’s always cases of reporters who go too far in one direction or the other—too jingoistic or too pessimistic. Part of it is because, for most reporters, it’s the first time that they have been allowed this kind of close action to American troops in the field. The military since Vietnam has been very reluctant to allow themselves to be covered when they’re doing a military operation. It’s been a learning process for both the media and for the military to get to know each other again and to establish a level of trust [so] that neither side thinks they’re going to get mistreated.
You can find cases of the military trying to censor stories. And you can find cases of the reporters not really understanding what they’re seeing or focusing excessively on the negative and not to the situation that led to the negative. But I think in general the media has hit all the important points. They’ve hit the courage and the risks and the pain and the brotherhood of the troops in the field, and they’ve also covered the Abu Ghraibs.
The truth is, we have to know about the Abu Ghraibs. We, as Americans, have to know when our troops are doing what we expect of them and when they’re doing less than what we expect of them. We need to make sure they don’t happen again. I don’t think we can fully count on the senior military to report on themselves. I have found the troops in the field to be very straightforward. As Americans, no matter how we feel about the war, whether we think it was the right decision or the wrong decision, or is being well or handled badly, it is incumbent upon us to take an unblinking look at what the troops who are fighting that war are doing. How they live, how their families live, what we put them through in our name.
So how might one find inspiration in our fighting men and women, even if one doesn’t agree with what’s going on there?
What better example is there than Cpl. Jason Dunham of Scio, New York? What did anybody do in any of the past wars that was more self-sacrificing, more generous, more unbelievably brave than what he did? There’s a reason that he’s been nominated for the Medal of Honor. That is an award that is reserved for those who do things that they would never be criticized for not doing. It is the literal definition of “above and beyond the call of duty.” It is not your duty to throw yourself on a grenade—and yet he did it.