On April 14, 2004, Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham saved the lives of his fellow Marines when he jumped on top of an enemy grenade and shielded them from the blast.
Dunham succumbed to his wounds eight days later, and later became the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. He was born on Nov. 10, 1981 — the Marine Corps Birthday. Today, he would have turned 38.
Born in Scio, New York, Dunham joined the Marine Corps in July 2000, where he was first assigned to guard the naval submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga. In 2003, he was transferred to the 29 Palms, California-based 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine regiment, and deployed to Iraq in 2004.
Sometime that spring, Dunham and two other Marines, pulling security, swapped theories about what they'd do if a grenade landed nearby. Second Lt. Brian Robinson said he'd lay face down and hold it between his forearms and his flak jacket to absorb the blast, The Wall Street Journal's Michael Philips reported.
Dunham, however, thought he could take his Kevlar helmet off and smother the grenade, before jumping on top of it. "I'll bet a Kevlar would stop it," he said.
On April 14, he tested his theory.
That day, Dunham was leading his squad on a patrol in Husaybah, Iraq to look for possible fighters fleeing an attack on his battalion commander's convoy. Stopping a line of cars and attempting to search, Dunham approached a white Toyota Land Cruiser.
The driver leapt out and attacked him.
As James Clark wrote for Task & Purpose:
As they struggled, two Marines, Pfc. Kelly Miller, and Lance Cpl. William B. Hampton, rushed forward to help. According to The Wall Street Journal, Dunham was heard yelling "No, no, no — watch his hand!" as a grenade rolled to the ground. The pin had been pulled and the spoon was gone. The grenade was live.
Without hesitation, Dunham leapt on top of it. Covering the grenade with his Kevlar helmet and body, he absorbed the full impact of the blast.
Dunham survived the initial explosion, but succumbed to his wounds on April 22, 2004. His selfless sacrifice saved the lives of at least two other Marines, at the cost of his own. He was 22.
Dunham wasn't supposed to be on the deployment to Iraq, as Clark notes. His end of active service date in July 2004 would have kept him stateside, but Dunham extended his contract by several months so he could stay with his Marines. "I want to make sure everyone makes it home alive," he told one of his lance corporals, according to The Journal. "I want to be sure you go home to your wife alive."
For the first time in more than five years, Sgt. Mark Dean, one of Medal of Honor recipient and Cpl. Jason Dunham's close friends, and Maj. Trent A. Gibson, Dunham's former company commander, carefully sort out the pieces of the Kevlar helmet Dunham used to help absorb the blast of a grenade.
Dunham's parents were presented with his Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony on Jan. 11, 2007. Dunham was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
"He was the guy who signed on for an extra two months in Iraq so he could stay with his squad," President George W. Bush said during the ceremony. "As he explained it, he wanted to make sure that everyone makes it home alive. Cpl. Dunham took that promise seriously and would give his own life to make it good."
Happy birthday, Jason, and happy birthday, Marines.
Read Dunham's Medal of Honor citation below:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Rifle Squad Leader, 4th Platoon, Company K, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (Reinforced), Regimental Combat Team 7, First Marine Division (Reinforced), on 14 April 2004. Corporal Dunham's squad was conducting a reconnaissance mission in the town of Karabilah, Iraq, when they heard rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire erupt approximately two kilometers to the west.
Corporal Dunham led his Combined Anti-Armor Team towards the engagement to provide fire support to their Battalion Commander's convoy, which had been ambushed as it was traveling to Camp Husaybah. As Corporal Dunham and his Marines advanced, they quickly began to receive enemy fire. Corporal Dunham ordered his squad to dismount their vehicles and led one of his fire teams on foot several blocks south of the ambushed convoy. Discovering seven Iraqi vehicles in a column attempting to depart, Corporal Dunham and his team stopped the vehicles to search them for weapons. As they approached the vehicles, an insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham.
Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Corporal Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.