The Gift of Valor: A War Story

The Gift of Valor: A War Story

by Michael M. Phillips


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The Gift of Valor: A War Story by Michael M. Phillips

The true story of US Marine Corporal Jason Dunham's brave act that saved fellow Marines and earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767920384
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 05/09/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 788,654
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

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.

Read an Excerpt

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 when the grunts got a warning that they'd be returning to Iraq in early 2004. Jason's four-year enlistment was due to end in July, but he was told that he would go with the battalion for the beginning of its new Iraq deployment.

The other veterans teased Dunham for having missed the invasion. They'd call him a boot or sometimes Uno, because he had only one ribbon to wear on his dress uniform, the National Defense Service Medal given to everyone in the active duty military after the September 11 attacks, even if they never saw combat. In Twentynine Palms, when it came time to gather the empty cartridges from the shooting range, some wise-guy combat vet would ostentatiously announce in front of Dunham: "If this is your first time deploying to Iraq, you're picking up brass."

Dunham shrugged off the boot jokes. He had trained as a machine gunner in infantry school, and he knew that leading a squad of riflemen was a different craft. A textbook Marine attack involved jets, helicopters, and artillery hitting a target from a distance, followed by mortarmen, machine gunners, and riflemen in an increasingly personal fight that ended with a charge into the enemy trenches. "For you guys who were here last year, good on you," Dunham told his men. "But I'm going to do my best to do the right thing and get us back home. If you see me slipping, let me know." He kept dozens of spare batteries in his pack to make sure all his Marines had enough for their night-vision goggles, and he diligently jotted down tips in a green, clothbound notebook he carried with him:

Enemy will withdraw unless 1st attack a success.
Don't sep. females from family.
Stay away from kangaroo rats.

Dunham learned his new job quickly and quickly earned the trust of the veterans around him. In December 2003, Kilo Company spent ten days in the barren expanses of Twentynine Palms training to deal with the elusive guerrillas and angry civilians they'd likely find in the Sunni Muslim areas of western Iraq. Marines from another battalion dressed up as Iraqi fighters and civilians, some wearing cardboard signs that read "Female" to test the grunts' sensitivity to sex roles in Arab culture. The role players then barraged Kilo Company with realistic scenarios, from anti-American demonstrations to militant ambushes to weddings in which celebrants innocently fired their weapons in the air. The exercise highlighted the hornets' nest that awaited the battalion; at one point a mock Iraqi gunman took a shot from behind a restive crowd of civilians and provoked two Marine units into shooting at each other. The days were warm, and the nights bone-chillingly cold. One day after dusk, Sergeant Mike Adams discovered that his cold-weather gear had been left on a truck, and the truck was long gone. The Marines were issued double sleeping bags that fit one into the other like Russian dolls. Together they were toasty. But separately they weren't quite enough for a night in which temperatures dropped below freezing. Dunham gave Adams one of his bags and his camouflaged poncho liner. They both woke up unable to feel their feet.

The physical hardships of the Marine Corps didn't present a great challenge to Dunham, who got a perfect score on his fitness test. But he thought the Marines hurt themselves by making young grunts intentionally miserable. He hated much about boot camp and the drill instructors whose job it was to strip recruits of their civilian identities and forge them into Marines. Not long into the thirteen-week training at Parris Island, South Carolina, he wrote an old friend from Scio, his hometown. "Hey, how's it hangin'? Not so great here. This is the stupidest thing that I've ever done. It's almost like hell, or at least close. I'd like to kill my DI's but I can't." At the same time Dunham loved being a Marine, and in the same letter he reflected happily on the fact that he had a good shot at being picked as an honor graduate and winning early promotion to lance corporal. He ended up ranked second in his boot camp class.

Still, the more he saw of the Marine Corps, the more firmly Jason believed that leading through intimidation wasn't just cruel, it was self-defeating. Dunham wrote an essay on the Marines for a freshman composition class he took at a community college near Twentynine Palms.

Through my experiences in the Marine Corps, the one thing that stands out more than anything else is the fact that Marines abuse their power. . . . [F]or some reason they have the need to make and watch other Marines do pointless and senseless things . . . Watching them sweat and become fatigued is considered good fun for most marines.

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Gift of Valor 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A somewhat gruesome tale of the pain and death suffered by so many young men who willingly volunteer to risk their lives and their future to preserve freedom for the rest of us! Should be read by all and cause all of us to pray for them and the peace which we all long for! My thank you for the author who took the time to write this book. God bless you and all you who fight for this country.
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story contained in this book is one of honor, courage, and sacrifice. Every American should read this young man's story. By far, one of the most powerful and moving books i have ever read.
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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.