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.


Bizon phone card Jupiter calling card Mozart calling card Continental calling card

No comments: