Sunday, January 14, 2007


January 14, 2007 -- Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, 22, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bush on Thursday for saving several men in his unit when he jumped on a grenade in Iraq. His mother, Deb Dunham, a teacher in upstate Scio, tells her memories of him.

I'll leave it to others to debate the politics of the war in Iraq. I'm a mother, not a politician. For me, discussing my son is personal, not political.

I want to remember Jason and to offer some thoughts to other parents whose sons and daughters are in combat serving this country.

There were so many facets to Jason's personality, you can't lock into any one thing.

He had a mischievous sparkle in his eye. You could play a joke on him and he would roll with it, but you could be pretty sure that he would come back with something when you weren't expecting it.

He was competitive and sports were often the way that he channeled that spirit. Jay played soccer, basketball and baseball - he still holds his high school's record in baseball.

Jason's teams often won. When he won, he wouldn't make the other team feel bad. He would congratulate his teammates and then go shake hands with the other team.

But it was his quiet sense of kindness that I remember most. He would always want to help out the little guy, the underdog, even when he was young.

Jason received the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself to save others. What he did is great. But my son would have said, "Oo-rah! Let's go have a beer."

There was always one more challenge for him to find and meet in his life.

Like many families across America, my husband Dan and I would not have been able to afford college for our four children. Jason knew that and in the summer of his junior year in high school, we would sit in the living room and talk about what he wanted to do.

My husband was in the Air Force and he believes that everyone should serve a few years in the military, because it polishes you.

So Jay went into the Marine Corps - because it's the toughest training and something he could hold over his father's head. He'd say, "I work in the men's department of the military."

Jason joined the Corps before 9/11, but he believed in what he was doing in Iraq.

His sense of right and wrong was keen. He thought that when someone has a lot of power and a lot of strength, you have a responsibility to help the little brother.

I just miss him.

For those parents who still have children in Iraq, I say, support your child.

This is a volunteer military that we have - these men and women have more courage, more dignity and more patriotism than I have seen in years.

Take the phone calls, send the letters and the care packages. They know you are scared, but they don't need to go through two types of war.

It's not a political issue when it's your child. They are doing what they believe is right.

Jason may be gone, but we've gained thousands of new sons.

That has helped the healing for us.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Medal for a Marine

This one is for the Marines. For the guys and gals in the uniforms with the red trim; for the tired, dirty, brave bunch on duty in the Middle East; for the kids in her son Jason's outfit who phone Deb Dunham each Christmas and Mother's Day, to check up on her and see how she's doing.

Jason died in Iraq in April 2004. He was a Marine corporal, leading a rifle squad on patrol near the Syrian border.

The Americans stopped a car. An Iraqi leaped from the door. Jason struggled with him. The Iraqi let go a grenade.

Jason covered the grenade with his Kevlar helmet, absorbing much of the blast. His unprotected head was pierced by shrapnel, but his sacrifice saved two of his men.

He was 22, the son of Deb, a school teacher, and her husband, Dan. He was treated in Iraq, then flown to a military hospital in Germany and on to Bethesda Naval Hospital, not far from here, where he died, as his mother held one hand and his father the other.

Jason was a high school athlete in Scio, N.Y., a rural community of 1,800 souls where his family works a dairy farm, some 70 miles southeast of Buffalo. For his bravery, he became the first Marine to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in Iraq.

President Bush told Jason's story on Thursday, on a bright, cold morning, a few hours after addressing the nation with the news that the U.S. will dispatch another 21,000 troops to Iraq.

"He was the kind of person who would stop patrols to play street soccer with the Iraqi schoolchildren. He was the guy who signed on for an extra two months in Iraq so he could stay with his squad. As he explained it, he wanted to 'make sure that everyone makes it home alive.' Corporal Dunham took that promise seriously and would give his own life to make it good," Bush told a solemn audience in the East Room of the White House.

Bush's cheeks glistened with tears.

"With this medal, we pay tribute to the courage and leadership of a man who represents the best of young Americans," the president said. "With this medal, we ask the God who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves to wrap his arms around the family of Corporal Jason Dunham, a Marine who is not here today because he lived that commandment to the fullest."

The East Room was not short of heroes for the medal ceremony. Barney Barnum and Bob Foley and Gary Littrell were there, wearing the cornflower-blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor, which they earned under fire, rallying comrades in Vietnam.

And Bob Howard, who was nominated for three Medals of Honor for his daring as a Green Beret in Vietnam, though you're only allowed to receive one; Al Rascon, an Army medic, who was wounded using his own body to shelter the shot-up soldiers under his care; and Brian Thacker, who, after helping his men beat back a North Vietnamese attack, stayed behind while they escaped, firing an M-16 and calling in U.S. artillery fire on his own position to buy them time. The young Marines in the crowd took turns, stepping up to shake their hands.

There was a reception at the White House, where a Marine pianist played a Chopin polonaise. Then the Dunhams stepped out of the West Wing.

The breeze whipped the flags at the mansion on the bright cold morning, as they walked out on the driveway. A stoic Marine, in dress uniform, stood guard at the West Wing door.

"We're very honored," Deb Dunham said. "We wish Jason could have been here.

"I wanted him here and I couldn't have him," she said, when asked what thoughts she had when accepting the medal. Just a mom, remembering, missing her eldest son.

Her husband Dan's thoughts went to the other dead and wounded soldiers who have suffered, and the other parents who have mourned. He seemed uncomfortable, being singled out.

"They are all courageous," he said. "They all have valor. They are part of this medal."

They've marched a long, emotional journey since the day in 2004 that they got the phone call, telling them that their boy had been mortally wounded, Deb said.

"I've lost my son. It still hurts," she said.

But the Dunhams are proud of their lost hero, and take comfort in the love and the sacrifice he displayed. They see in Jason's selflessness "an example of the good that is in men," said Dan. And so take comfort.

Their son didn't write many letters; he preferred to phone home to hear their voices. He talked sometimes of the cause for which he fought.

"Jason believed that all men on this earth should be free," said Dan. "As do I."

Maybe mostly, Jason "believed in his friends," his father said. In the bonds formed in combat, in a frightening and dangerous place, on a mission so far away.

Believed enough that he gave his life for theirs.


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