The Gift of Valor: A War Story

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9780767920377: The Gift of Valor: A War Story
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Every day ordinary young Americans are fighting in Iraq with the same bravery, honor, and sense of duty that have distinguished American troops throughout history. One of these is Jason Dunham, a twenty-two-year-old Marine corporal from the one-stoplight town of Scio, New York, whose stunning story reporter Michael M. Phillips discovered while he was embedded with a Marine infantry battalion in the Iraqi desert. Corporal Dunham was on patrol near the Syrian border, on April 14, 2004, when a black-clad Iraqi leaped out of a car and grabbed him around his neck. Fighting hand-to-hand in the dirt, Dunham saw his attacker drop a grenade and made the instantaneous decision to place his own helmet over the explosive in the hope of containing the blast and protecting his men. When the smoke cleared, Dunham’s helmet was in shreds, and the corporal lay face down in his own blood. The Marines beside him were seriously wounded. Dunham was subsequently nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor.

Phillips’s minute-by-minute chronicle of the chaotic fighting that raged throughout the area and culminated in Dunham’s injury provides a grunt’s-eye view of war as it’s being fought today—fear, confusion, bravery, and suffering set against a brotherhood forged in combat. His account of Dunham’s eight-day journey home and of his parents’ heartrending reunion with their son powerfully illustrates the cold brutality of war and the fragile humanity of those who fight it. Dunham leaves an indelible mark upon all who know his story, from the doctors and nurses who treat him, to the readers of the original Wall Street Journal article that told of his singular act of valor.

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About the Author:

MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has done four tours in Iraq with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I  |  Kilo Company

Husaybah, Iraq
Corporal Dunham didn't play head games.

Life for the new Marines, the young guys still in shock from boot camp, was already tough enough, and Dunham didn't see the point of making them even more miserable just for kicks. But Jason's was a minority view, and it was a time-honored practice in the Marine Corps for senior enlisted men to mess with the minds of the boots, as the new guys were called. Marine commanders had in recent years tried to eliminate dangerous hazing rituals and had prohibited, among others, practices referred to in Marine Corps rules as wetting down, flopping, psychological sit-ups, pink bellies, thrashing, ordnance kisses, and Beretta bites. Commanders had also restricted the tradition of forcing Marines to do push-ups or run if they erred in small ways--calling a corporal a lance corporal, for instance, or dropping a magazine full of bullets. A senior Marine could order such punishment only if he himself did the same exercise at the same time. Nonetheless, most men in Dunham's battalion--Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, or 3/7 for short--would automatically drop and do thirty-seven push-ups if they let their rifle fall to the ground, even if nobody told them to do so. That was a matter of simple integrity, in the Marines' view. Captain Trent Gibson, Kilo Company's commander, and Lieutenant Bull Robinson, Corporal Dunham's platoon commander, did push-ups if they slipped up on the names of any of their Marines.

The crackdown on hazing and punitive exercise pretty much left senior Marines with head games--called "fuck-fuck" games--if they felt like having a little fun with the boots. The commander of Dunham's battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Lopez, hadn't exactly barred fuck-fuck games. But he had warned the men that they shouldn't do anything to the junior Marines that they wouldn't do in front of the colonel himself to the colonel's own son. Nonetheless, recalling the humiliation they had put up with when they were boots, some senior enlisted Marines saw no reason to spare the next generation the same indignities. The tradition was rooted in the sharply defined military hierarchy. A Marine infantry battalion was divided into rifle companies, the companies into platoons, the platoons into squads, and the squads into fire teams. Third Battalion had 900 men and Kilo Company had 190. A fire team had just three or four. The Kilo Company officers beneath Captain Gibson were first and second lieutenants. The senior enlisted man in the company was a first sergeant, with a gunnery sergeant, staff sergeants, sergeants, corporals, lance corporals, privates first class, and privates below him in unmistakably descending order. The Marines took their hard-earned ranks seriously. They addressed each other by rank, and often men who ate, slept, and fought together didn't even know each other's first names. There was an underlying truth in the classic Marine joke: What do you do if someone tosses a hand grenade at you? Call for a private and throw him on it.

Corporal Dunham wouldn't allow fuck-fuck games in his squad. But sometimes the senior Marines got bored and toyed with the boots anyway when Dunham was out of earshot. "Put that down," a senior lance corporal barked at a junior lance corporal, Jonathon Polston, not long after Kilo Company arrived in Iraq. Polston obliged and put down the socks or helmet or CD player or whatever he was holding. As soon as he did, the senior Marine changed the order: "Pick it up. Put that down. Pick it up." Then the command shifted again: "Come here right now. Too slow--go back. Come here right now. Too slow--go back."

The game continued until Corporal Dunham saw what was going on. "Knock that shit off," he told the senior man. "If you're going to talk to him, talk to him. If not, just leave him alone."
* * *
Dunham's humane leadership won him the undying loyalty of the boots in his squad. Pfc. Kelly Miller was especially impressed when, in early March, Kilo Company's Fourth Platoon was sent to help Lima Company at its base in Husaybah. Camp Husaybah sat hard against no-man's-land, a fifty-yard-wide strip of sand, rubble, and garbage separating Syria from Iraq and claimed by both. The disputed zone was edged by tall fences and wire. Shopping bags of black, blue, and white plastic snagged on the barbs and flapped in the desert breeze like socks on a laundry line. The crossing point was a narrow road blocked on the Syrian side by a red-and-white metal gate. Anyone who bypassed the checkpoints and tried to sneak across no-man's-land risked being shot by Syrian border police on one side or Marine camp guards on the other. The war was supposed to be in Iraq, but sometimes it leaked across no-man's-land.

To the north of the Marines' outpost the border stretched through farmland toward the Euphrates River, getting wetter and greener as it approached the slow-moving waters. Iraqi boys grazed their goats on the marshy riverbanks, and during harvest season pomegranates and nectarines hung low over the American infantrymen riding on tanks or Humvees. To the south the border quickly disappeared into sandy wastelands and parched wadis, where the shrubs barely outnumbered the land mines.

Dunham's squad was assigned the task of fortifying the sprawling camp against mortars and car bombs by filling sandbags and setting up giant, cardboard-lined metal baskets called Hesco barriers. The engineers used construction machinery to fill the baskets with sand to form a thick blast wall, as much as twice a man's height, and the grunts topped them with coils of razor wire. As a squad leader, Corporal Dunham could have ducked much of the heavy labor. Instead, he worked alongside his men for a hot, hard week, and his men gratefully took notice.

Pfc. Kelly Miller, who turned twenty-one a month after arriving in Iraq, grew up in Eureka, California, an economically struggling area amid redwood-covered hills. Kelly's father, Charlie, was a retired mail carrier who had settled quietly into a routine of babysitting for his grandchildren. Kelly's mother, Linda, was a confident, energetic woman who managed a doctor's office. They lived with their three children in a working-class neighborhood in a blue, three-bedroom, one-bath house the Millers bought for $16,000 in 1971.

When Kelly, the six-foot-one, 210-pound baby of the family, turned seventeen, he took a job bagging groceries at Safeway to earn some spending money, and he gradually worked his way up to weekend night-crew manager after high school. For fun, he and his friends would trap crabs off the end of the Del Norte Street pier or race their cars by Clam Beach. Often he'd just hang out with his girlfriend, who worked in construction after finishing high school.

One morning in April 2003, while U.S. forces were taking Baghdad, Kelly ended his shift at the Safeway and walked into the Marine recruiter's office at a local strip mall. He had long been curious to find out how brave he was and how he'd perform in combat. So he signed up for the infantry, the grunts. The recruiter drove him home to get his birth certificate and high school diploma. Charlie was surprised. Linda was dismayed. Two months later Kelly was in boot camp in San Diego.

Kelly was assigned to Third Battalion and shipped to its base in Twentynine Palms, California. In the 1920s, the area, in the rocky, high desert, had been a haven for World War I veterans whose lungs had been burned by mustard gas in the trenches. Now it was a vast base designed to train Marines to fight in the brutal terrain of the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Kelly quickly realized that while he may have finished boot camp, he was still a boot. He and the other junior Marines had to sweep the dirt at the base to make it look neat, and on demand they had to serenade the senior enlisted men with "You Are My Sunshine." During urban warfare training, the grunts at Twentynine Palms had to work their way through a mock city, complete with silhouettes of bad guys and innocent bystanders. One of the new guys accidentally shot a civilian silhouette. All the boots in the squad had to write essays explaining why it was bad to shoot noncombatants. Miller paid another Marine five dollars to write his essay for him.

In Iraq, Miller and the other boots were the first ones assigned to working parties around camp. They had to guard the ammunition. When the helicopters dropped off crates of water at the Marines' base in al Qa'im, the junior Marines had to pick up the hundreds of plastic bottles that scattered around the landing area after the crates inevitably broke open. Worst of all, as far as Kelly Miller was concerned, they had to take shifts burning the feces of the 350 men at Camp Husaybah. Navy engineers, the Seabees, had built the grunts plywood outhouses called burnout units. A typical burnout unit had three holes in a row. The Seabees installed seats if they could find them; otherwise the Marines just sat side by side on the slivery wood. Beneath each hole was half a fifty-five-gallon metal drum. When a barrel got too full, Miller and Polston put on leather gloves, dragged it out of the back of the outhouse, doused the slop in Humvee fuel, and lit it on fire with a book of matches or flaming piece of toilet paper. Kelly and Jonathon watched to make sure it burned thoroughly, stirring occasionally with a metal pole and trying to dodge the bitter cloud of fetid smoke. When it burned down, the Marines added more fuel and stirred some more, repeating until only ashes remained.
* * *
Dunham had spent his first years in the Corps guarding the sub base in Georgia and transferred to the infantry when the U.S. invasion force was already fighting its way to Baghdad. He stayed in California training other Marines and ultimately joined Third Battalion's Kilo Company in September 2003, after the unit returned from its first tour in Iraq. The battalion had been home just a couple of months...

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