On the anniversary of his death, a look at what has kept alive the legacy of Cpl. Jason L. Dunham.
A little more than 10 years ago, Cpl. Jason L. Dunham was just one of many Marines serving with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But one split-second decision on April 14, 2004, secured his place as a Marine Corps hero who will never be forgotten.
Their son’s story is a two-parter: the time he lived in the tangible world, and after.
He was an athlete, a prankster and a protector, and when he became a man, he was too soon gone, dead at 22.
Dan and Debra Dunham’s son Jason died 10 years ago in Bethesda, Md., from a brain injury suffered in Iraq. Dan ordered Jason off life support, and at 4:43 p.m., April 22, 2004, part two began.
Dan said day one, year 10, is no different than day one, year zero: “It’s as vivid in my mind as the day it happened. The eight-day struggle, the day we sat there and held his hand when he passed away – I can remember every single second of it.”
Yet the son was not lost. Legends have a way of overriding worldly constraints.
“The Marine Corps does not forget Jason. They teach and honor what he’s done,” Deb said. “He’s present, and we can talk in the present because you’re honoring him and you’re remembering him, and you don’t forget.”
Cpl. Jason L. Dunham received the Medal of Honor for taking the brunt of a grenade blast that would have killed at least two other Marines.*
“What he did was a flash of self-sacrifice and courage,” said journalist and author Michael Phillips. “He had three seconds to decide, ‘Am I willing to die, right now, for my friends?’”
Jason the protector did not waver in his response.
Here we look at a list of definitive moments and commemorations from the past decade that have served to keep Dunham’s memory alive.
A Commandant Visits: April 22, 2004 (Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant at the time, visited the hospital. He hugged Deb, spoke to the parents and presented Jason with the Purple Heart.) Jason died at 4:43 p.m. after an eight-day journey home battling a mortal brain injury. One other American service member died during combat operations that day: Army Spc. Pat Tillman.
A Funeral: May 1, 2004. Scio, N.Y. “The capacity auditorium of more than 1,500 people overflowed with mourners as townspeople came to honor Jason and rally around the Dunham family. Brother Kyle, who was 15 when Jason died, was comforted by the preacher who said, ‘God must have found others who needed Jason more than we did.’ Many who could not fit in the auditorium stood outside or waited on their porches as the casket passed in procession from the schoolhouse to nearby Fairlawn Cemetery.”
The Nomination: May 2004. Michael Phillips: “I arrived in Al Qaim-Husaybah area maybe two weeks after he had died, and so people were talking about him because they were putting together the Medal of Honor package.
“It was fairly soon afterwards that they realized he put himself on this grenade; he put his helmet on this grenade. They had his helmet, which had been shredded. Within weeks they were putting him in for the Medal of Honor. But it had to work its way from the battalion to the division and MEF, basically Gen. Mattis, and from there up to the White House, which took time.”
A Book: May 2005. The Gift of Valor, A War Story, Broadway Books published a 241-page paperback. The author Michael Phillips: “Dozens and dozens of people – on airplanes, in hospitals, in the dirt in Iraq – took care of Jason Dunham after he was injured, and if I were a young Marine going into combat the first time or the tenth time, I would want to know that people are with me, people I’ve never met are with me, and that if something happens to me, they’re going to take care of me and they’re going to respect and take care of my family.”
A Law: Dec. 18, 2005, H.R. 4515: The facility of the United States Postal Service located at 4422 West Sciota Street in Scio, New York, shall be known and designated as the “Corporal Jason L. Dunham Post Office.”
An announcement: November 10, 2006. Medal announcement on what would have been Jason’s 25th birthday.
The Medal: Jan. 11, 2007. President Bush Presents Medal of Honor to Corporal Jason Dunham. Read More
A Ship’s Namesake: March 23, 2007. DDG-109 named. Read More
Barracks: Aug. 17, 2007. Marine Corps Security Force Company names its barracks at the naval submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga. Read More
A Few of His Things: July 11, 2009. Mast stepping ceremony, at Bath Iron Works Shipyard in Bath, Maine.
“The Dunhams, Gibson and the ship’s captain placed a package containing items such as the last letter Cpl. Dunham wrote home, a set of his dog tags, his Purple Heart and the guidon for his company into a small metal box inside of the warship’s mast. Aided by a master welder, the group welded the box closed, sealing the items in the mast of the ship permanently.” Read More
A Launch: Aug. 1, 2009. DDG 109 christening. Read More
The ship’s inflatable patrol boats were subsequently named Miller and Hampton, whose lives Cpl. Dunham has been credited with saving.
Hampton: “Yeah. The Billy Hampton and the Kelly Miller. Absolutely it’s an honor. It’s kind of like the ship is the squad leader. The Billy Hampton points forward; the Kelly Miller points to the rear. It kind of makes me think that the ship is the squad leader, the one pointing forward is the team leader and the one on the reverse is our point man. It makes me feel like we’re always going to be together.”
The Road Home: Aug. 25, 2011. Amity, N.Y., highway and bridge rededicated “Corporal Jason Dunham Memorial Highway” and “Corporal Jason Dunham Memorial Bridge,”
“Cpl. Dunham is a true American hero. This bridge and roadway will not only honor Cpl. Dunham for his sacrifices, but also will serve as a reminder to anyone traveling the roadways here that they are living in a free society because of the men and women who are willing to fight, and sometimes die, to protect our freedoms,” said State Senator Catharine Young. Read More
A Mess Hall: Feb. 18, 2014. Dedication ceremony of the Cpl. Jason L. Dunham Memorial Mess Hall at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. Read More
A Life Saved: Lance Cpl. William “Billy” Hampton was one of the Marines Dunham saved. Today Hampton is 31. The Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran medically retired as a sergeant from active service July 30, 2010.
Hampton took to an outdoorsy life of hunting, growing food and raising animals with his wife and three children in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.
He said Dunham absolutely saved his life.
“Jason not only gave me the gift of life, he gave me that life transformed into what’s now my retirement. I get to do whatever I want to do. I can go out to the garden, I can take the kids to the park, I can go out back and just sit with my chickens and watch them scratch. I can grab Mama and the boy and we can go up on the mountain and we can do whatever.
“I struggle with survivor’s guilt, but I think Dan and Deb have helped me move on from that. Talking with them and visiting them and being in constant contact with them has ultimately helped me let go of it. My girls know who Jason is and when my son gets older, he’ll know who Jason is. Not only about Jason but … all the other Marines that I’ve known that didn’t come home. They know, and they kind of understand when Daddy needs to go outside. What’s helped me is being able to pass on the memories to the kids and to my wife.”
A Homecoming: April 5, 2013. The guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) returned to Naval Station Norfolk, marking the successful completion of her maiden deployment.
Dan: It’s one of the Navy’s toughest ships … it’s here to look out for the little guy, and that’s what Jason did.