The Gift Of Valor

A War Story

by Michael M. Phillips

The Gift Of Valor

Hardcover, 241 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $19.95 | purchase

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The Gift Of Valor
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A War Story
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Michael M. Phillips

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Book Summary

A gripping chronicle of the war in Iraq describes how one young Marine, Corporal Jason Dunham, sacrificed his own life to save those of his companions, an act of courage that led to his nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor. 75,000 first printing.

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Cpl. Jason Dunham heads to the helicopter that would take him to Al Qa'im, in Western Iraq, in April 2004. Mark Edward Dean hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Edward Dean

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Gift Of Valor

The Gift Of Valor

  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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