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BOOKS & THE CULTURE 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 illir 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 dayit’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…. day, I suffered through the account’s final heart-rending passages while sit ting 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 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 22year-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 rel ished strict control. In the barracks he and his troops discussed all manner of pos sible battle scenarios, hash ing out plans to handle any situation with professional poise and wisdom. A par ticularly heated topic of dis cussion was how to negoti ate 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 lack ing. 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, nowatch 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, 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 22, 2005