I had the honor of attending the commissioning ceremony for the USS Jason Dunham in Port Everglades, Fla., recently. Dunham received the Medal of Honor for his unselfish display of heroism in Karabilah, Iraq on April 14, 2004. Rarely do we consider history when going through life in the present day. Even as I write this, America celebrates its newest Medal of Honor recipient, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta. It’s important that we share the stories of these great heroes. We should all cherish the opportunity to know them all and allow their stories to be told. It’s even more of an honor to embrace the history of today for what it’s worth.
As Marines, we pride ourselves on our heritage and the actions of those who came before us. We hear names like Chesty Puller, John Lejeune, John Basilone, and Jason Dunham, and our chests become inflated with pride knowing that we share the same title, Marine, that these great warriors earned. To witness the life of a brother I never met by attending the ship’s commissioning ceremony in his name was indescribable.
Dunham lives on in the vessel sharing his namesake. The proof of this resonated with me throughout the weekend. It began the moment I stepped off the airplane. I overheard two baggage handlers discussing plans for the weekend. One mentioned the ship’s commissioning the next day and how he wished he could attend. The second wanted to know more.
“I overheard (Dunham’s) parents talking the other day. He was a Marine. I can’t remember his name,” the baggage handler said.
“Cpl. Jason Dunham,” I interjected, chest as swollen as ever.
Dunham’s actions bring a sense of awe when you hear about him. The 22-year-old man selflessly covered a grenade with his body and Kevlar helmet to save the lives of those around him. But it was my journey inside the Navy destroyer that truly taught me who Dunham was.
Just walking onto the ship and seeing the crew walk around busy with preparation of the next day’s events was chilling. With every turn, I saw Dunham’s name forever stitched on the shoulders of Navy uniforms. In the ship’s mast, a single shred of Dunham’s Kevlar from his heroic act of bravery, and his dog tags, replacing the customary good luck coin normally placed beneath it; both now serving to protect the destroyer and its crew.
Inside the Captains Mess, hangs Dunham’s Dress Blues, with his ribbon rack and the Medal of Honor draped around the shoulders. On the wall, diagonal from the uniform hangs the officer’s coffee mugs and one specifically for his father, with the word “Dad” proudly displayed.
The heart of the ship is the galley, aptly named “Jason’s Dugout.” A little known fact, at least to me, was Dunham’s love for baseball. He played baseball in high school and was a fan of the New York Yankees. Hung in the galley are his high school baseball bat, his jersey and his player stats card. If you look at one of many photos of him in uniform, you can see him wearing a Yankees baseball cap beneath his Kevlar helmet. And hung on the left side of the wall is another baseball jersey. The jersey belonged to Derek Jeter, the Yankees shortstop. Once the Yankee organization heard of Dunham’s story, they were willing to give anything the family wanted for the vessel, including the autographed jersey.
Two hand-drawn photos are also on display. One being of Chesty Puller, and the other, of Jason Dunham hung side by side on the same wall. It was enough to give me chills.
As I departed the vessel, I knew in my heart that it was more than just a ship. As a teary-eyed mother, Deb Dunham, addressed the crowd of thousands from the podium on the ship’s deck, and thanked both her personal and military families before announcing, “Man our ship and bring her to life,” I knew it was more than just a ship. As I witnessed an author and his daughter snap photographs on the ship’s deck and throughout the passageways in remembrance, the same author who told the story of Jason Dunham in the novel, “The Gift of Valor,” Michael Phillips, I knew it was more than just a ship. And as I shook the hand of Sgt. William Hampton, a fellow Marine whose life was saved by Dunham’s action and looked at him and his family, I knew…
Cpl. Jason Lee Dunham, born November 10, 1982 in Scio, NY. A man of strong spirit who joined the Marine Corps July 2000. A Marine, who served proudly and willingly and performed a tremendous act of valor April 14, 2004. A son, who died due to his injuries with his parents at his bedside April 22, 2004. Cpl. Jason Lee Dunham was reborn November 13, 2010, 510 feet long, 66 feet high at his tallest beam with the ability to move up to 30+ Knots. He serves, protects and provides for more than 300 officers and sailors of his crew. And I stand proudly, just as any other Marine, and salute the man, knowing that his legacy will live on.
As we celebrate this month, Marines, with Marine Corps birthday celebrations and Veterans Day, Thanksgiving meals and the honor shown to another hero, let us continue to give thanks to our fallen. To never forget about their deeds and to relish this moment to experience history. I know that I will.
// By Cpl. Santiago G. Colon Jr.
At 23, serving as a squad leader during a fight against enemy forces in Iraq 2004, Cpl. Jason Dunham led his squad into an engagement, then stopped to search seven Iraqi vehicles attempting to depart [Read more...]