BATH, Maine — Marines flushing out Iraqi insurgents after an ambush came upon a column of vehicles. A van with a father and son. A pickup truck. A tractor. A BMW with a couple of sheiks. And a Toyota Land Cruiser with four young men, all of them insurgents.
As Marines began searching the vehicles, the driver of the Land Cruiser jumped out and attacked Cpl. Jason Dunham. The two men tumbled onto the dirt road. Two Marines ran up to assist but Dunham cried out, “No, no, no, watch his hand!”
A grenade exploded, rocking the narrow street.
Dunham, 22, of Scio, N.Y., mortally wounded as he saved his comrades that day, will be honored Saturday at the christening of the Navy’s newest destroyer, the USS Jason Dunham. The young corporal who threw his Kevlar helmet and his body onto the grenade became the first Marine since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
His mother, Deb Dunham, said she can’t think of a greater tribute.
“It keeps his name alive and his memory alive. And that, as a parent, is what’s important, so that people don’t forget what our men and women are doing with the fight for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a cost to pay,” Deb Dunham said.
Deb Dunham, who will christen the ship with champagne at Bath Iron Works, will be joined by her husband, Dan, and their other three children.
Dunham’s company commander, Maj. Trent Gibson, and other Marines who served with him in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, will attend.
First Sgt. John Ferguson, who heard Dunham’s last words before the grenade blast, saw the insurgent and the three Marines sprawled on the ground when the dust settled on April 14, 2004.
“I thought for sure all four were dead,” he said. Amazingly, though, Lance Cpl. William Hampton and Pfc. Kelly Miller, both suffering burns and shrapnel wounds, rose to their feet. Dunham never regained consciousness and died eight days later.
While Dunham’s name will always be synonymous with his actions on April 14, 2004, his parents remember a young man who wasn’t perfect, growing up in the small town in western New York. He excelled at sports but wasn’t the best student. He often forgot to take the trash out, they said.
But he always had a tendency to look out for others.
“Jason had the biggest heart on this planet. He was always looking out for everybody else and their welfare. When they were sad, he would make them laugh. He was that way all through his childhood growing up, and in the Marine Corps also,” Dan Dunham said.
He was an unlikely choice for squad leader because he hadn’t seen combat. But Ferguson, who selected him, liked what he saw: “He didn’t brag or boast about his abilities. He never yelled. In fact, the whole time I knew him he only yelled once or twice. He led by example.”
Dunham took his role as squad leader seriously. He extended his enlistment so he could serve a full combat tour with his fellow Marines, and he vowed to make sure his squad made it home alive.
The rest of them did.
The Iraqi insurgency was gaining momentum when Dunham’s unit arrived in Iraq’s dangerous Anbar Province and set up shop in 2004 near the Syrian border.
Kilo Company lost its first Marine on April 9 in an ambush, so the troops were already on edge five days later when they heard explosions while on patrol in Karabilah. The battalion commander’s convoy had been ambushed, so Dunham’s unit set off to engage the enemy.
His squad came across a line of vehicles fleeing and decided to search them.
The old Land Cruiser was of particular interest because it had four young men in it. Miller got there first, and three Iraqis hopped out and fled, Gibson said.
Then the driver jumped out and attempted to choke Dunham. Dunham drove his knee into the man, and they fought on the ground. Miller struck the man with a telescoping baton and tried to put him in a choke hold, to no avail. Hampton, too, charged to the scene. No one but Dunham saw the grenade before the blast. Afterward, the suicide bomber got to his feet and was shot dead.
Later, Gibson, the company commander, returned to the bloody scene and found pieces of Dunham’s helmet. He also found the pin from a grenade on the ground, next to the attacker’s body. Another hand grenade and weapons including rocket-propelled grenade launchers were discovered in the Land Cruiser.
Dunham’s response was not by the book. Marines are taught to hit the deck, facing away, to minimize shrapnel wounds from a grenade, Gibson said.
But Dunham had his own ideas. He’d told fellow Marines he thought the best approach would be to cover the grenade with the helmet and bullet-proof body armor, they said. In fact, he even demonstrated the technique. Little did he know that he’d employ the technique two weeks later.
“Dunham had thought about it quite a bit. He decided that you could cover it with your helmet to help diffuse the blast,” Gibson said.
Dunham, whose Medal of Honor was announced in 2006, is one of four soldiers to receive the medal for actions in Iraq.
Gibson said Dunham’s example serves as an inspiration to Marines.
“More than just being written up for a medal, it’s really what kind of example he set in sacrificing himself, in committing himself so completely to the protection of his Marines,” Gibson said.
The USS Jason Dunham will go to sea with several mementos donated by his family, including his dress blue uniform and a baseball bat. The warship carries the motto: “Semper Fidelis, Semper Fortis,” which is Latin for “Always Faithful, Always Strong.”