This Day in History: Jason Dunham, first Marine to receive a Medal in Iraq
On this day in 1981, a hero is born. Jason Dunham was the son of a United States Air Force veteran, and he was born on the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Perhaps he was destined to be a hero?
Dunham enlisted in the Marine Corps soon after his graduation from Scio High School in New York. By the spring of 2004, he was a Corporal serving a tour of duty in Iraq. He was based at Camp Husaybah, a fortified compound located near the border. The assignment was far from easy, of course: Husaybah was a known hot spot for insurgents.
Soon after he arrived in Iraq, Dunham was involved in a conversation with two other officers. The discussion proved important, although no one realized it at the time.
They were discussing how to best survive a hand grenade attack.
Dunham asserted that the best way to survive such an attack would be to use the Marines’ Kevlar helmet, positioning it over the grenade to contain the blast. Another Marine disagreed, arguing that the bulletproof plate in a flak vest was better because it would protect vital organs.
“For Marines at war,” Dunham’s biographer writes, “it was a mundane conversation, the battlefield equivalent of the discussions that college students back home might have about last night’s keg party . . . .”
The conversation was mostly forgotten—at first. But on April 14, Dunham apparently made a spontaneous decision to put his theory to the test.
Corporal Dunham was leading a reconnaissance patrol that morning when he received word that a convoy had come under attack. Naturally, he and his men hopped in their Humvees and immediately went to the assistance of their fellow Marines. When they arrived on the scene, they got out of their vehicles and split into teams: They were looking for the shooters.
Dunham’s group soon reached an intersection where a string of Iraqi vehicles was parked. They began checking the vehicles for weapons. Just as Dunham approached a white Toyota Land Cruiser, the driver of the car leaped out at him, grabbing him by the throat. Dunham kneed the Iraqi and the two fell into the street, still fighting. Other Marines ran to help.
Suddenly, some of the Marines heard Dunham yell, “No, no, no—watch his hand!”
The Iraqi was holding a grenade. The pin was already out, and the Iraqi had been holding it on a hair trigger. Suddenly, the grenade was loose. Dunham threw his helmet atop the grenade and his body atop the helmet. The grenade went off.
The helmet only sort of worked. Pieces of Kevlar scattered everywhere.
Staff Sgt. John Ferguson heard the blast and came running. At first, he assumed that everyone in the vicinity must have been killed, but then he saw what Dunham had done. Dunham’s swift action had saved the lives of two other Marines, but his theory about the Kevlar helmet hadn’t worked. Dunham was evacuated, still alive, but his head wounds proved mortal. When he passed away several days later, his parents were by his side.
Dunham would become the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for his service in Iraq.
Mere weeks before he died, Dunham spoke of his intent to extend his tour in Iraq. “I want to make sure everyone makes it home alive,” he told a fellow Marine. “I want to be sure you go home to your wife alive.”
And that’s just what he did.
Dwight Jon Zimmerman & John D. Gresham, Uncommon Valor: The Medal of Honor and the Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq (2011)
George W. Bush, President Bush Presents Medal of Honor to Corporal Jason Dunham (January 11, 2007)
Medal of Honor citation (Jason L. Dunham; Iraq)
Michael M. Phillips, The Gift of Valor: A War Story (2005)
Michael M. Phillips, In Combat, Marine Put Theory to Test, Comrades Believe (WSJ; May 25, 2004)