The Magazine

A Quiet American

The life and death of Cpl. Jason Dunham.

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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The Gift of Valor

A War Story

by Michael M. Phillips

Broadway, 192 pp., $19.95

SERGEANT HENDRICKS HAD A BAD feeling about the convoy. Not because of the operation itself--it was a classic goodwill hearts-and-minds mission--but because so many Iraais knew the Marines were coming, and this might set them up for an ambush. Finding himself edgy the night before, he wrote in his journal, "Well, if this is my last entry because we get hit--it's been fun."

By 9:38 the next morning, April 14, 2004, it was evident that Hendricks had been right. Iraqi insurgents attacked the convoy and critically wounded several Marines.

Corporal Jason Dunham and his team from Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, were sent into the kill zone in order to disarm the insurgents. (From the bloody carnage there--Marines dead and wounded, one with a nine-inch-long splinter of wood jutting out of his head, another with small chunks of muscle hanging from his thighs--one quickly grasps the accuracy of the term "kill zone.")

At a little after noon, Corporal Dunham was searching a line of Iraqi vehicles parked along the dirt alley just inside the gateway of Husaybah. As Dunham approached a run-down white Toyota Land Cruiser, the driver lunged out of the car and grabbed him by the throat. The two men tumbled to the ground, and two other Marines rushed to help. A few yards away a radio operator heard Dunham yell. Then an explosion shattered Dunham's helmet and left all three Marines wounded, Dunham mortally.

Did the force of the explosion wound Dunham, sending his shattered helmet into the air? Or did Dunham put his helmet over a grenade to protect the other men in his squad, primarily Private Kelly Miller and Lance Corporal Bill Hampton, the two Marines who had rushed to help him subdue the insurgent?

Wall Street Journal reporter Michael M. Phillips wanted to find out what happened. The result was a front-page article, later expanded to become this gripping minute-by-minute account of the final days of Dunham's life.

Well researched and artfully crafted, The Gift of Valor is based on interviews with about a hundred Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen, and civilians, as well as letters, e mails, essays, personal journals, medical records, and documents related to Dunham's nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest award for military valor, saved for those whose actions are considered so self-sacrificing, so risky, so far beyond what is required, that no one would be criticized for choosing to do something else. Applied to Dunham, the criteria boil down to this: If Dunham had kept his helmet on his head, he would have mitigated the grenade's effect on himself, and he might be alive today. If he removed his helmet to cover the device, as some believe he did, he would have helped protect his men, but would have opened himself to grave injury. He would have made the ultimate sacrifice, and would thereby be eligible to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Although presented objectively, the facts make a strong case that Dunham spotted the grenade, warned his men to move out of the way, then placed his helmet and body on top of the grenade to shield his squad mates:

Lance Corporal Hampton caught a fleeting glimpse of Dunham's helmet on the ground beside the Iraqi with Dunham on his stomach, his arms stretched out in front of him and wrapped around the sides of his helmet. Then came a flash of light, and Hampton's vision was blurred as metal fragments hit him in the face, both arms, and the leg until he staggered against the cinderblock wall with blood gushing from an inch-wide hole in his forearm.

Private Miller saw the explosion and its aftermath in still frames. First, he saw Dunham tipping over with his helmet gone. Then Miller saw the sky as he fell backward when a piece of hot metal passed through his upper lip, coming to rest inside the back of his cheek and blowing out his eardrum. A radio operator about 36 feet away, Lance Corporal Jason Sanders, saw nothing but heard Dunham scream out a warning to "watch [the Iraqi's] hand," causing Sanders to assume that Dunham had seen a grenade in the man's hand and warned his men about it.

Afterward, several Marines found a Mills Bomb grenade in the Toyota that had been used in the ambush. They also found what they believed to have been a pin belonging to a grenade that might have been used by the insurgent.

Thinking about the incident, Staff Sergeant John Ferguson remembered an earlier conversation with Dunham, and his stubborn conviction that a helmet would blunt the blast of a grenade, while other Marines insisted that you would need more than just a helmet. Ferguson had no doubt that Dunham had put his helmet on the grenade.

Besides, Dunham was a conscientious leader. He had promised several times that he would bring all of his men back home from Iraq, and had even extended his tour of duty for five months so he could stay with his squad through their entire combat tour. When push came to shove, Dunham would do anything to protect his men.

But the one person who would have known something definitive was dead. Corporal Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old squad leader, never regained consciousness after the explosion, and died a little more than a week later on April 22. Shortly thereafter, Phillips, who has done four tours in Iraq with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, began researching Dunham's story.

Writing in a manner reminiscent of John Hersey's Hiroshima, Phillips begins the story with its climax; then detail by detail, he reconstructs the people, places, and events that led up to the climax. The method brings the story home so powerfully that when one of the Marines, an Arab American, is wounded but still calls out, "Semper Fi," I had chills.

Phillips develops the story through vignettes that both comment on each other and advance the story, often taking it in a zigzag pattern as opposed to a linear one. This works only because the book is so clearly written.

Arranged to intensify the emotional aspects of the story, the vignettes resemble tiles in a mosaic, each emphasizing and creating the larger picture. Phillips doesn't just describe the attack on Dunham; he describes the attacks on everyone wounded during the ambush. One hears about each of them: from Marines, doctors, family, and friends, all giving context to Dunham's injury and making it the climax of the story.

First, Phillips focuses in on those involved in the action at ground zero. Then he moves out to cover Dunham's military training at both Parris Island and Twentynine Palms; his injury at Husaybah; his hospitalizations in Iraq, Germany, and Washington, where he died; and the award citation recommending Dunham for the Medal of Honor. Completing the portrayal of Dunham, Phillips describes his early life in his hometown of Scio, New York. With a poet's eye, Phillips gathers the just-right details, as when he notes the misspelling on the sign advertising Scio's only bar, Mahogany Ridge, and the bait machine on the porch of Scio's general store, which "for $1.25, spat out mealworms, salted minnows, or live nightcrawlers."

A loving son, a caring first-born who looked out for his three younger siblings, a faithful friend, a hard worker, a talented baseball player, but a lackluster student, Dunham liked the outdoors and the challenge of physical activity. He joined the Marines in the summer of 1999, the summer before his senior year in high school, when no one had an inkling that the United States would soon go to war, let alone experience the trauma of 9/11.

Growing up in a working-class family, Dunham lived with his stepfather, a farmer and truck driver, and his stepmother, a schoolteacher. Both were concerned and loving parents, something his birth mother was not. Dunham planned to go to college after he was discharged from the Marines and, eventually, to marry. With his contagious smile, athletic appearance, and youthful good looks, Dunham had his pick of several young women, and felt that he had everything to live for.

Writing in spare, objective prose, Phillips drives the story forward with separate incidents, each foreshadowing other incidents, increasing tension, so that one feels tragedy approaching as if it were a physical presence. We know that the hero will die, because that's the way tragedies work; but we hope that, in this case, the tragedy won't work, that all will end well. But it does not.

Ultimately, this is a story about the human effects of war. Phillips makes no judgments about the rightness of the war in Iraq, no judgments about the media coverage of that war, and no judgments as to whether Dunham should receive the Medal of Honor. Instead, he marshals the evidence objectively, letting readers decide for themselves. The Gift of Valor has a strong moral sense, but doesn't preach. It merely shows what happened--not how or why--to a typical Marine, and in doing that, it fires the imagination in a way few news stories can.

Diane Scharper is the author, most recently, of Songs of Myself.