See an audio slideshow of the presentation ceremony here.
WASHINGTON — Deb Dunham wished she could have seen her son receive the Medal of Honor, “but we know he’s watching us.”
Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest honor for valor at a ceremony Thursday at the White House.
Dunham, who dived on a live grenade to shield his troops during an ambush in Iraq, is only the second U.S. servicemember to be given the top military honor for actions in that country, and the first Marine.
His mother wiped away tears as her son’s award citation was read. Later, as she accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of her son, she gave President Bush a kiss on the cheek.
At the ceremony, Bush noted that more than half of the Medal of Honor recipients since World War II have died earning it.
“Cpl. Jason Dunham belongs to this select group,” Bush said. “On a dusty road in western Iraq, Cpl. Dunham gave his own life so that the men under his command might live.”
Dunham, a rifle squad leader for Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, was manning a checkpoint near the Syrian border on April 14, 2004, when his patrol received a report of a nearby convoy under ambush.
When Dunham’s patrol arrived they stopped a group of cars trying to escape the area, officials said.
As Dunham moved from vehicle to vehicle looking for insurgents, a man jumped out of his car and grabbed Dunham by the throat.
As the two fought, the Iraqi dropped a grenade with the pin removed. Before his fellow Marines could react, Dunham leapt on it, covering the explosive with his helmet and his body.
The blast destroyed the helmet and sent shrapnel into Dunham’s skull. He died eight days later at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Maj. Trent Gibson, Dunham’s company commander, said those who knew him weren’t surprised to hear he sacrificed his life to save others.
“It just seemed perfectly natural for him to do it,” he said. “It’s not a decision; it’s your instinct as a Marine to confront a threat and protect your other Marines.”
Gibson said Dunham had talked with several squad members about such a scenario just days before the attack, wondering if a Kevlar helmet could withstand the explosion and figuring out how quickly someone would have to act to use the headgear as a blast cushion.
“What is so poignant about it is that he had envisioned himself doing that,” he said. “He thought about that, envisioned what he would do, and weeks later he found himself in that exact situation.”
Dunham’s fellow Marines remembered him as a natural leader, someone whose calm demeanor and quick actions inspired respect.
“He made an impact on everyone he met, the first day,” said Sgt. Mark Edward Dean, since promoted, but who served under Dunham. “He’s the kind of guy you want to be your best friend, your brother, the guy fighting next to you.
“He always put everyone ahead of him. [That day], he made sure that everyone else was all right, even though it took his own life.”
First Lt. Brian Robinson, Dunham’s platoon commander, said Dunham extended his tour before he first stepped foot in Iraq.
“He was going to stick it through with his guys,” he said. “He led by example, and he wasn’t going to leave early when those guys weren’t able to.”
Gibson said he saw Thursday’s ceremony, attended by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, Navy Secretary Donald Winter, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., and past recipients, as an opportunity for resolution.
“It’s nice to see him get the recognition that he deserves,” Gibson said.
After the ceremony at the White House, Dunham’s mother said her emotional journey hasn’t stopped since she first learned her son had been mortally wounded, but she has been able to get by with the help of Marines such as Gibson.
And while the hurting hasn’t stopped, she feels pride in knowing her son did the right thing, she said.
“I’ve lost my son, but he became part of history.”
The highest honor
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest medal for valor in combat that can be awarded to members of the armed forces. It is sometimes referred to as the “Congressional Medal of Honor” because the president awards it on behalf of Congress.
Because of the need for accuracy the recommendation process can take in excess of 18 months, with intense scrutiny every step of the way.
The medal was first authorized in 1861 for sailors and Marines, and the following year for soldiers as well. Since then, more than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded.
Medals of Honor are bestowed only to the bravest of the brave, and that valor must be well-documented.
So few Medals of Honor are awarded, in fact, that the only ones awarded after the Vietnam War were bestowed posthumously to Army Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart for valor in Somalia in 1993, and posthumously to the most recent recipient, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith for valor in Iraq.
There were no Medals of Honor awarded during Operation Desert Storm or operations in Grenada, Panama and Lebanon.
Source: U.S. Army
Awards by service
Although soldiers have received the lion’s share of the nation’s highest military award, Marines, sailors, airmen and one Coast Guardsman have earned the Medal of Honor as well. Here’s how the medals have been split among the services:
Air Force: 17
Marine Corps: 296
Coast Guard: 1
Source: Congressional Medal of Honor Society