The Gift of Valor: A War Story

The Gift of Valor: A War Story

4.5 19
by Michael M. Phillips

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Obscured by the ideological fog of war is a basic fact: Every day ordinary young Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq, with the same bravery, honor, and sense of duty that have distinguished the best American soldiers throughout history. One of these was Jason Dunham, a Marine corporal from the one-stoplight town of Scio, New York, whose stunning story


Obscured by the ideological fog of war is a basic fact: Every day ordinary young Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq, with the same bravery, honor, and sense of duty that have distinguished the best American soldiers throughout history. One of these was Jason Dunham, a 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 in the town of Husaybah, 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 the men beside him. When the smoke cleared, Dunham was laying facedown in his own blood, shrapnel embedded in his brain, and his Kevlar helmet was shredded. The Marines next to him were seriously wounded, but alive. Dunham became the first soldier in Iraq nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor. If the president approves it, Dunham’s act of courage will be the first to merit the Medal of Honor in eleven years.

Phillips’s minute-by-minute chronicle of the chaotic fighting that raged throughout Husaybah 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 struggle to make it homealive and of his parents’ decision to remove their son from life support vividly illustrates the cold brutality of war and the fragile humanity of those who fight it.

Michael M. Phillips first told Dunham’s story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, where it prompted an outpouring from readers unlike anything Phillips and his editors had ever seen. According to Phillips, “I received hundreds of letters.…At least half of the letter writers were crying as they wrote—for the Dunhams’ loss, for Jason’s sacrifice, perhaps even for their own feeling of inadequacy. Americans seemed to yearn for reassurance that U.S. troops still fight with courage and honor.”

Author Bio:

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.

Editorial Reviews
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In April 2004, 22-year-old Marine corporal Jason Dunham was leading a patrol in far western Iraq when he encountered a convoy of cars. Jason rushed to the third car to check for weapons, and a struggle with the driver ensued. Suddenly, as Jason's comrades hurried over to assist him, the insurgent dropped a grenade. In that moment, Corporal Dunham made a decision that would change his life and the lives of his men forever; he clamped his Kevlar helmet over the grenade.

The Gift of Valor chronicles the events that brought Jason to that fateful patrol, and the second half of this engrossing book is a minute account of that awful day, Jason's journey through the military medical system, and his struggle to survive. Phillips, an embedded reporter for The Wall Street Journal, immerses readers in the everyday lives of the brave young Marines serving in Iraq with the chaos of combat around them. A remarkable tale of heroism, selfless sacrifice, and leadership, The Gift of Valor is a sobering story of a small-town boy who became the first American nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor in over a decade. This brave young solider had a profound affect on all who met him, and his story, so ably told by Phillips, cannot help but affect readers, too. (Fall 2005 Selection)
New York Times Book Review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Thanks to Phillips' clear, dispassionate prose, Dunham ... is becoming a symbol of the Marines."
Proceedings Magazine
"Stands head and shoulders above previous Iraq books and will quickly [become] a 'must-read.'"
U.S. Naval Institute
Armchair General Magazine
"If you have any desire to learn about the Marines, this book is well worth your time."
Library Journal
In April 2004, Marine corporal Jason Dunham gave his life to save his comrades in Iraq. Now there's talk of a Congressional Medal of Honor-the first awarded in over a decade. A Wall Street Journal reporter tells the story. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This expanded retelling of a front-page story that originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal serves as a memorable narrative tribute to the life and death of U.S. Marine Corporal Jason Dunham. At age 22, serving in Iraq near the Syrian border with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, Dunham suffereda grievous head injury when he clampedhis bullet-resistant Kevlar helmet over a live grenade thrust at him by an insurgent during hand-to-hand combat, in an apparent effort to contain the blast and protect his squadmates. Phillips, an embedded journalist with the Marines, subsequently interviewed the corporal's parents, his childhood friends in Scio, NY, members of his infantry unit, and medical personnel who tended him both in Iraq and during the medevac flights to Germany and Bethesda Naval Hospital. These interviews reconstruct the emotional, significant ways in which the young man's life and plight affected relatives, neighbors, and comrades in arms. The context of his upbringing serves as a backdrop to his developing military leadership style, and the scant number of years that separate his teenage experiences from grimly serious battlefield conditions will undoubtedly catch the attention of readers. He has been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. This realistic, gritty portrayal of loss and its aftermath personalizes events behind daily headlines, but remains descriptive rather than political in its point of view.-LynnNutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“One of the first great books to be spawned by the war in Iraq . . . Phillips has captured the fear, bravery and confusion of the war.” —Tucson Citizen

“Affecting . . . moving.” —New York Times Book Review

“The story of extraordinary valor on the part of a brave marine.”
—H. Norman Schwarzkopf, General, U.S. Army, Retired

“Stands head and shoulders above previous Iraq books.”
—Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute

Product Details

Broadway Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 7.76(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Hand Grenades

Husaybah, Iraq

The Marines knew.

Somewhere in this desert city, in one or two or ten of those flat brown houses, someone was waking up, kneeling down for prayer, and planning to kill Americans today. Maybe he'd launch a rocket into the U.S. camp and spray hot metal fragments into the warehouses where the Marines lived packed tightly together. Perhaps he'd rig an artillery shell to explode along the street where an American patrol would pass in the evening. He might load explosives into the trunk of an old Toyota and press the gas pedal to the floor when the Marine sentries opened fire at the camp gate. Or would he just crouch behind a wall with a machine gun and wait?

From inside the fortified camp, each Marine looked out at the angry city of Husaybah and wondered when and where and how. And whether he'd measure up when the time came.

So it was that in the spring of 2004, Corporal Jason Dunham sat behind the razor wire and sandbags wondering what he'd do if today was the day someone in Husaybah woke up, grabbed a hand grenade, and set out to kill him.


Raised in the village of Scio, New York, the easygoing Corporal Dunham stood six-foot-one, with a bodybuilder's chest and an infectious, lopsided smile that disarmed wary young women and crusty old sergeants alike. His temples were shaved close, in the Marine style, and the top of his head was covered by a dirty-blond burr so short that it erased the cowlick above his forehead. Inked into his right arm was the tattoo he got during boot camp four years earlier: a skull wearing a military helmet emblazoned with the eagle-globe-and-anchor Marine emblem. On his left arm was a black skull with fangs, and on his chest a spade from a deck of cards overlaid with a skull gnawing on an eight ball, a souvenir of the years Dunham spent guarding a submarine base in Georgia before he was sent to Iraq.

The twenty-two-year-old Dunham was, in the eyes of his fellow Marines in Kilo Company's Fourth Platoon, the poster child for the Corps. Yet he had been in the combat zone just a few weeks and so far hadn't experienced that moment of fear and elation, resolve and doubt that came with taking another man's life. As the leader of an infantry squad, he had nine other Marines under his command, yet he had never had to decide which of his friends to send toward the sound of gunfire and which to keep safer in the rear. It was an interval of uncertainty when young men hoped their cocky war tattoos were more than just decoration.

Inside Camp Husaybah, the men of Fourth Platoon slept side by side on narrow cots, their only privacy a thin mesh of mosquito netting or a draped poncho, their only reminders of life before war what they packed in their seabags. Dunham brought a blue Yankees cap, a dartboard, and a folding chair from which he held court. That day in March the corporal sat inside the warehouse barracks with his platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Brian Robinson, and guided the conversation to a favorite topic: how to deal with an incoming hand grenade. The Marine Corps published manuals that covered almost every eventuality in warfare, but had no formal advice for grunts -- the Marines' affectionate term for infantrymen -- who found themselves on the receiving end of a live grenade. Each man had his own pet theory, and Corporal Dunham unveiled his for the lieutenant. If the Marine managed to cover the grenade with his helmet, Dunham said, the helmet's bullet-resistant Kevlar material would blunt the blast.

"I'll bet a Kevlar would stop it," Dunham said.

Brian Robinson had taken command of Fourth Platoon just before it shipped out for its second tour of duty in Iraq in February 2004. At Camp Husaybah, the Marines were still getting to know their new lieutenant, and it was there that they gave him the nickname Bull because of his resemblance to the gawky courtroom bailiff in the long-canceled television sitcom Night Court. When the conversation turned to hand grenades, Robinson, assistant manager of the building materials department at a Wisconsin home improvement store before he joined the Marines, thought back to photos he had seen at the Marine Corps school for freshly minted lieutenants. They showed a 7.62 mm bullet -- the kind Iraqi insurgents fired from their AK-47 rifles -- passing easily through walls and Kevlar helmets.

"There's no way a Kevlar could absorb that blast," Robinson told Dunham. The Marines' bulletproof body armor fared much better, however. The lieutenant had seen pictures of a ceramic chest plate, called a SAPI plate, that absorbed seven AK rounds before it finally cracked open.

"You'd be better off using a SAPI plate and protecting your nuts and your neck," Robinson told Corporal Dunham.

The lieutenant showed Dunham what he meant. He held his right forearm across his upper chest horizontally, and his left arm across his abdomen, the way a football halfback takes a handoff. If the Marine lay on top of the grenade like that, Robinson said, the blast might shatter both arms, but he'd probably survive thanks to the body armor covering his vital organs.

Lance Corporal Bill Hampton, one of the senior men under Corporal Dunham's command, overheard Dunham and the lieutenant going back and forth about the virtues of their grenade theories. Hampton thought that if a grenade rolled his way the sensible thing would be to kick it or throw it away and hit the deck. He remembered an older Marine once advising him to drop face down on top of his rifle, tuck in his arms, and aim the soles of his boots toward the explosion to absorb the shrapnel. Hampton didn't bother stopping to join Dunham's debate. One of the Marines cracked a joke about a lieutenant losing his arms, which caught the attention of Staff Sergeant John Ferguson, the top enlisted man in the platoon and Lieutenant Robinson's steady right hand. Ferguson was a stocky, serious veteran of both the intervention in Somalia and the invasion of Kuwait. From boot camp on, Marines were taught that their worst possible failing would be to let down the men beside them, and Ferguson, a thirty-year-old from Colorado, had already experienced the nerve-wracking responsibility of leading men into places they might never leave. The idea that a helmet would contain an exploding grenade struck him as naive. "It'll still mess you up," he warned Dunham.

"What about the helmet and the SAPI plate?" the corporal countered.

"It would increase your chance of surviving, but I don't think it would work," Ferguson said.

Dunham persisted. "I think it would work."


For Marines at war it was a mundane conversation, the battlefield equivalent of the discussions that college students back home might have about last night's keg party or cubicle dwellers might have over where to go to lunch. Idle chatter about life and death, forgotten by the next time Corporal Dunham's squad ventured out on patrol or raided the house of a suspected insurgent fighter.

But memories of that day came rushing back to Staff Sergeant Ferguson a few weeks later as he stared at an Iraqi insurgent stretched out in an open lot, his body stiff, his head cracked open and his black tracksuit wet with blood. Nearby was the spot where Corporal Dunham had lain a few minutes earlier, a halo of red oozing out of his head into the hard Iraqi sand. Dunham's helmet was ripped into bits of flimsy fabric and scattered all over the unpaved lane.

Meet 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.

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Gift of Valor 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had the privelage of serving with Cpl Jason Dunham and this book will have you hooked in from page one, and on the verge of tears at page 100. I was there when this happened and it is a very accurate description of the events that resulted him in winning the first medal of honor in the the war in Iraq.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After hearing about Cpl Dunham as he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, I wanted to read the book to find out what kind of person would be so selfless. The story was well written, and although it jumps around a bit, it does an excellent job of allowing the reader remember characters, even minor ones, as they are introduced. There are stories to go with each person, making it easy to recall who Phillips is talking about. The main focus is Dunham, and in describing his life, Phillips makes the reader really feel like he knows Jason and knows the pain everyone associated with him is going through, as the last days of Jason's life were constructed with many extensive interviews. One really gains a sense of the fact that the Marine Corps are a family and take care of their own. This book tells the story of an individual soldier, but it could be the story of any American soldier killed in battle. Cpl Dunham is someone who every American should look up to as a model of patriotism not because of the war or duty to his country, but because of his duty to his fellow man that without hesitation cost him his life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When you watch the TV news, you get 'sanitized' versions of the events in Iraq. When you read 'A Gift Of Valor,' you get the truth about what's going on over there. Marines and soldiers are putting their lives on the line for one purpose - to allow the Iraqi people a chance to breathe free from oppression. I feel that this book deserves as many as ten stars for telling it like it is. War is hell and our people are literally taking it on the chin. We face a fanatical enemy who doesn't respect anything or anyone and the story of Jason Dunham tells us that. He is a hero just as Army Sergeant Paul Smith is and should be honored for his actions. He was also a good human being in his own right and this book does a fantastic job of communicating that to the reader. I highly recommend this story of courage and sacrifice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fabulous book heartbreaking
efm More than 1 year ago
Heroic story of a Marine who gave his own life to save others.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have not read the whole book, but what I have read is truly heartbreaking. To think that such a brave and vital young man could be gone is truly sad, but it was nice to see that he was never alone. Like another reviewer, I got this book after hearing about his getting the MOH and from what I read it was truly deserved-he gave his life to save his friends. It was also nice to see the care that he had gotten from everyone in the medical system. All in all a wonderfully written book about a brave man. Regarding the title of my review-unlike Superman, Jason Dunham knew he could die and did it anyway, making him a real hero.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read many books about our Armed Forces in the Middle East. They range from personal accounts of the war from the soldiers and marines, to memiors by reporters and other personnel. If you only read one book about this subject, this is the one! Corporal Dunham will always be a hero to me, and how fitting is it that he is going to be awarded the MEDAL OF HONOR. I can't even put into words how much his story captured my heart. God Bless you, Corporal Dunham, and your family who will always be in my prayers.
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What a way to tell the story. It was diffacult to put the book down.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
U.S. Marine Corporal Jason Dunham is a remarkable man. One day while making his rounds of the town of Baghdad, Iraq with his men, he stops at what he thinks is an abandoned car. He walks over carefully to check if there are any weapons inside the vehicle. When he walks up to the car the driver (who was slouched down in the front seat) jumps toward him in an attempt to kill Corporal Dunham. The Corporal now finds himself fighting for his life and to make the situation even worse the insurgent drops a grenade. In attempts to save his life and the lives of his men, he takes his helmet and forces it on top of the grenade. Through Michael M. Phillips this story is brought alive. It is an exciting and moving story of Corporal Dunham and how he becomes a U.S. Marine. This small town native comes from a torn family and a battered past. But his future looks much better. This book is about how our U.S. Marines are trained. Unlike news reports and other media that covers the Iraq war, this book puts you into the war and really tells you the truth about the war. It shows you the way the Marines live and fight through hard times. It also makes you appreciate the Marines a lot more because when you read this book you get attached to the story and the lives of many extravagant men. Each man has his own stories but the main man is Jason Dunham. As you read his story, you will feel as if you are right there in the war with him. It leaves you feeling inspired and knowledgeable about what really happens at wartime.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I believe he is a martyr for his bravery action and also an unselfish act to give his life away to protect his comrades. When I read his story 05/30/05 in the Parade in an instant I felt that he was a real true american hero. Never forget he may not be here physically but will always remain here spirtually in our hearts. I am definately going to buy this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cpl Dunham is a real hero that is the way Marines are trained to protect your brothers because they are all you have in the bush. He was protecting his fire-team and it really is a tradgy that we are getting our service men and women killed.Our Commander and Chief would not go and fight when our county called on him that is a big double standard if you ask me. SEMPER FI.