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Heart of a champion, soul of a hero

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.

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9 Responses

  1. Pierce Brochetti says:

    This is a thank you to all servicemen and women. We do greatly appreciate what you do for everyone.
    I am a musician, Pierce Brochetti, and have a couple of songs dedicated to the armed forces.
    The first one is dedicated to the people who went to fight in WW2: Namely Normandie. It’s called Stormi Normi.
    The other one is called Toy Soldier and it rocks, just like you do, the service people.
    Have a listen and feel free to pass this along to your friends and families.
    Maybe we could play for you some day.

    You can purchase here:

    Again, thank you for all you do
    Pierce Brochetti & Company

  2. Doc says:

    I lost a son in 2007, a Marine Corporal. I was a Navy SARC and have another son who followed me as one. When his brother was KIA’d (they both were deployed in different countries and in action quite a bit; the Navy said they would send him home for the funeral. I will remember forever what he said: “My Dad taught me that you never leave your Marines in a fight, ever. He told me he would rather fight and die with his Marines than live in safety. No one can take care of these guys like I can. I will miss my brother but I will say my good-bye when I come home on leave. I want to stay and fight”.
    I am sad to see this young Marine go on to his reward, but because he did, others lived and will continue the fight.

    Thank you is not enough for this Marine. I ask only when he sees my son that he tells him his Dad says Semper Fi.


  3. Bill Kibler says:

    To the USS Cpl. Jason Dunham and crew: Fair Winds, Following Seas, and Semper Fidelis.

    -A Beirut Veteran

  4. Sgt Rex C. McBee says:

    Having served 3 tours in Vietnam in the Marines, we are proud of all those who gave some, but honor those who gave all. Rest in peace brother, Semper Fi Leatherneck.

  5. Julie Barr says:

    As I read this article, I am reminded again of how blessed I am to be living in a country under the protection of such brave men and women. It humbles me to know that because of them, my children and I can live in freedom and peace in a safe home. I thank you and I pray for your safe return so that you, too, can come home and enjoy the freedom of this country that you so bravely and unselfishly protect. God bless you all!

    Julie Barr

  6. Sgt. Denton says:

    Alway humbling to learn of another Marine’s ultimate service to the Nation and fellow Marines. S/F!

  7. jeramiah holck says:

    i need some advise



  9. Scott Cochran says:

    I just wanted to tell the family of this unselfish Marine, thank you for bringing into this world such a selfless, brave individual! I am a former Marine myself and when I read articles such as this one, I feel so proud to share the same title as this person, a Marine! I offer you my condolences! And please know that your family will be in my prayers! Semper Fidelis!