The Story of Corporal Jason Dunham BY JAMES E. McWILLIAMS The Gift of Valor: A War Story By Michael M. Phillips Broadway Books 256 pages, $19.95 he “Gift of Valor” is a book so painful and sad that you need to be careful where you read it. I devoured it in a day—it’s hard not to—while traveling between Austin and Portland, Oregon, to attend a conference. The man sitting next to me on the airplane kept talking about the strength of the coffee and the subtle literary talents of John Grisham. (“I shouldn’t have had this third cup.… Have you read his latest?”) Later that day, I suffered through the account’s final heart-rending passages while sitting in a trendy little wine bar where conversations centered on pinot noir and salmon. The two female bartenders sang along to a Cat Stevens song while a very loud patron made fun of his boss’s dress habits. (“She wears her stretch pants so high that they serve as both pants and a bra!”) His friends broke into laughter at the very moment when, in my book, Jason Dunham’s parents had just finished a meal at the International House of Pancakes and decided to remove their 22-year-old son from life support, finally acknowledging the gruesome extent of his brain damage. Everything about my day suddenly seemed vaguely wrong, if not random and absurd. Corporal Jason Dunham did not like anything to be wrong, random, or absurd. He was a Marine who relished strict control. In the barracks he and his troops discussed all manner of possible battle scenarios, hashing out plans to handle any situation with professional poise and wisdom. A particularly heated topic of discussion was how to negotiate a grenade. Dunham had a theory: Take your Kevlar helmet off and muffle it. A staff sergeant overheard the remark and quickly interrupted. “It’ll mess you up,” he said, advising that the soldier kick it. A lance corporal within earshot recalled that the best way to deal with a grenade was to drop onto your rifle and point the soles of your boots toward the explosion, absorbing the shrapnel while protecting your piece. Dunham carefully considered these suggestions but still found them lacking. The Kevlar cover would lessen the bomb’s impact, thus saving more lives than the other solutions. As was typical for this remarkable kid, he always placed the safety of his troops ahead of his own. “I think it would work,” he concluded. The test came around noon on April 14, 2004. During an especially stealthy insurgent ambush in the border town of Husaybah, Iraq, an unarmed Iraq civilian lunged at Dunham from behind a parked Range Rover, grabbing him in a headlock. Dunham kneed the man in the gut and the two tumbled to the ground “in an angry embrace,” according to Phillips. Pfc. Kelly Miller began to slam the Iraqi with a police baton that his brother had sent in a care package. Lance Corporal Bill Hampton hovered over the melee with a rifle, trying to sharp shoot the man’s temple. Then, according to Lance Corporal Sanders, who provided cover as the Marines subdued the attacker, Dunham yelled out “No, no, no—watch his hand!” The Iraqi pulled the “spoon” from a grenade, leaving it to wriggle in the dust. The very next thing Sanders saw—”in slow motion”—was “Dunham on his stomach with his arms stretched out in front of him and wrapped around the sides of his helmet, as if he were holding it down on top of something. The British-made Mills bomb detonated, studding Dunham’s brain with shrapnel. Hampton, Sanders, and Miller walked away with serious injuries, none of them life-threatening. They owed their lives to Dunham. Dunham, by contrast, laid there, “a halo of red oozing out of his head into the hard Iraqi sand.” His helmet was nowhere to be seen because it had been “ripped into bits of flimsy fabric and scattered all over the unpaved lane.” Two weeks later, he died in a Washington, D.C., hospital. Michael M. Phillips, a Wall Street Journal reporter embedded with Third Battalion, Seventh Marines in 2003 and 2004, places this singular act of heroism in the larger context of Dunham’s childhood. With sharp journalistic sketches he captures the trajectory of Dunham’s brief life before enlisting in the Marines, before becoming the kind of man who would risk his own life to protect those of his charges. The upstate New York bar where he and his buddies knocked back peppermint schnapps, the biological mother who wanted less and less to do with her boy over time, the loyal father, how he threw up after trying Copenhagen for the first time, the night he stained his hair blue with food coloring for a big football game, his girlfriend Melissa and, when he tired of Melissa, his girlfriend Sara—all of these details, conveyed without a hint of nostalgia, highlight the tenderness of Jason’s youth, a time when he never left home without saying “I love you.” These details are hard to forget when, later, we find him with his eyes swollen shut and “the skin on his forehead folded crudely back, blood oozing into the dirt. From there, Phillips draws on his intensive experience with Marines in Iraq to situate Dunham in the odd crux of Marine culture, a place where he thrived as a natural leader. Dunham’s fellow Marines saw him as “the poster child for the crops.” Whereas many squad leaders hazed and tormented the grunts to keep their attention, Dunham didn’t tolerate “fuck-fuck games,” as they were called, allowing his charisma to earn the loyalty of his nine men. On one occasion, after witnessing a senior Marine play a “fuck-fuck game” on an especially fragile grunt (telling him to pick something up, put it down, pick it up, put it down, over and over again), Dunham admonished the man “to knock that shit off.” The man, much to everyone’s surprise, stopped. Many superiors thought Jason was “just too nice of a guy” to be a superior Marine. His squad, however, idolized him for what Phillips calls his “humane leadership.” The emotional core of this superbly balanced book comes at the end, as Phillips takes us on the excruciating journey of possible recovery following Jason’s injury. Triage dictated that men more likely to live were attended to first by the overburdened medical staff. Jason, still in the Iraq countryside, was given last rites. The medical practitioners on hand were “deeply uneasy” about Jason. They were “neither trauma surgeons nor critical care nurses, but it chafed that they were supposed to sit idle and wait for a badly injured young Marine to expire.” When Jason surprised a nurse by squeezing her hand in response to questions, she begged a senior doctor to reconsider leaving him in Al Asad. The doctor re-examined Jason and agreed that he should go to Baghdad, where two neurosurgeons who had “already opened 110 craniums during the first five months they were there” could operate to relieve the pressure building in Jason’s brain. After removing a chunk of his skull, the doctors sent him to Germany where, despite moments of hope, his condition deteriorated. Once it was determined that his chances were slim to none of ever leading anything but a vegetative life, Corporal Jason Dunham was flown to the United States in order for his parents and siblings to say goodbye to their son and brother. It would be impossible to convey the pain that ensues, and I won’t try it here. I will say this: In a book that does not once comment upon the rightness or wrongness of the war, it goes further than the dozens of other books currently out there making reasoned arguments for the folly of America’s occupation of Iraq. What Phillips does is something more valuable, more emotionally poignant, more real. It reminds us of an obvious point, one that’s inevitably lost watching CNN or reading the papers: The cogs in the military machine are not cogs—they’re kids. Corporal Jason Dunham was just one kid among tens of thousands stuck in Iraq fighting a violent war for dubious reasons. Just one kid, just one life, just one act of heroism. Somehow, though, Phillips makes us realize that, in a way, it represents so much more. James E. McWilliams lives in Austin.
James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.