ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
As in every war, the battlefields of Iraq have offered up stories of courage and heroism, extraordinary acts so often carried out by young men, who just years or months ago were boys ambling through America's small towns. Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips has chronicled one of those tales in a book called "The Gift of Valor: A War Story." It's the story of Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old Marine corporal whose stunning act of bravery saved the lives of others. It also earned the war's first nomination for the Medal of Honor. Jason Dunham was raised in Scio, New York, barely a blip of a town south of Buffalo. He was a star athlete, a muscular kid with a magnetic personality and devoted parents, Deb and Dan Dunham.
Last spring, Jason Dunham and his men were patrolling an insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border. They were inspecting a stopped car when suddenly an Iraqi leapt out and grabbed Dunham around the neck. The two wrestled briefly on the ground, then Dunham noticed the Iraqi had dropped a live grenade. In a flash, Dunham snatched off his helmet and stretched out his arms.
Mr. MICHAEL PHILLIPS (Author, "The Gift of Valor"): What Jason did is place his helmet on top of the grenade. And this is something he had been talking about for weeks as maybe a way to contain a grenade blast, the sort of thing that when Marines sit around and talk, they think, `Well, let's see, what would I do if somebody shot at me? What would I do if somebody hit me with a mortar? What would I do if somebody threw a grenade at me?' And Dunham's theory was always, `Well, maybe a helmet would help. Put it on top of the grenade.'
NORRIS: The helmet did help blunt the explosion and save the lives of others. But Dunham suffered serious injuries from flying shrapnel.
Mr. PHILLIPS: And one piece about the size of an eraser went into Jason's head and deep into his brain, and that was the last time he was conscious.
NORRIS: Many war stories might end there, but Michael Phillips' book is unusual as war stories go. It goes beyond the battlefield to chronicle the battle to save Jason's Dunham's life.
Mr. PHILLIPS: The doctors took a look at him in triage and decided that he was not going to make it. And they put him aside in what they call the expectant ward, which in this case was a washroom. And they assigned people to sit with him. There were dental technicians, a psychologist, a chaplain, and they sat with him for 45 minutes as he was in a coma and waited for him to stop breathing. And he was a very well-built guy, did a lot of muscle building, that sort of thing. And so he was sort of flopping over the side of the stretcher, and they thought, `God, he really looks uncomfortable.' And so they thought, `Well, we'll try to strap in his arms so that he doesn't fall.' And as they did that, Heidi Craft, the psychologist, was holding Jason's hand. And just as they were doing that, he squeezed her hand and pulled her down to his chest. And you have to remember, at this point, Jason had not done anything resembling voluntary motion. He was in the deepest of comas. And she said, `Oh, my God, he squeezed my hand.'
And they all stopped and looked, and they said, `Corporal Dunham, can you--you know, can you hear me? Can you hear me?' And he continued to squeeze her hand and pull her very forcefully down to him. And they went out and got the doctors. They took his pulse, and they looked at his breathing and they said, `You know, he's still strong. He's not dying. He's breathing very hard and his pulse feels strong. It's 72 beats a minute. What are we going to do?' And they said, `You know, we got to get him out of here. We got to get him to Baghdad.' And they lifted him up and carried him out of the expectant ward and got him ready to fly off to Baghdad in a Black Hawk helicopter.
NORRIS: They spent eight days trying to save his life but ultimately...
Mr. PHILLIPS: What happened was they evacuated him from Baghdad into Germany to the...
NORRIS: To Landstuhl.
Mr. PHILLIPS: Landstuhl. And they took him there, and he was there for about three days in the intensive care unit. The doctors expected him to live. They didn't know what, in a sense, would be left of him. They thought that Jason would have lost some functions. It might have been movement, it might have been understanding, but they did expect that he would survive. And he just didn't get better. And after a few days in Landstuhl, the doctors there concluded that what they really wanted to do was to get him home to Dan and Deb and give them one more chance to see him. And so they got him as quickly as they could back to Bethesda to the naval hospital.
NORRIS: As a writer, did you struggle with that part of the story, the end of Jason's life, Dan and Deb's effort to get here, the effort to raise money back in Scio so they could get to Bethesda? I wondered if that was the hardest part of this book for you?
Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah. It certainly was. Dan and Deb are just terrific and open and generous people. And they have an insatiable thirst for knowledge about Jason and what happened to him. One of the things that I've noticed in reporting the story and the book is that most of the families of men who are killed don't have much information about what happened to them. They can get some from his fellow Marines or soldiers, they can get some from the official reports, but they don't have much detail. And Deb and Dan wanted to know more about who their son was in the Marines, what happened to him that day and what happened to him on the way back.
Because I was reporting details that they had never known before, I was able to assure them about things that they had been worried about. One of Deb's major concerns was that Jason not be alone and not be in pain. At the hospital, she'd ask Marines that she met, `Well, you know, tell me what's probably happening to him. Could he have been alone? Could he have been in pain?' And what I was able to find out was that there was always somebody with him: Heidi Craft, who held his hand in the expectant ward; Marisol Melendez, an ICU nurse in Baghdad who went running around trying to find buckets of ice that she could cool him down when he had a fever and held his hand and finally fell asleep with her head conked out on his bed in the ICU because she had been up for so many hours trying to care for him and for others. And I was able to put these people in touch with Deb and Dan and also just let them know that somebody was always there for him.
NORRIS: And in the end, in his last moments, again, he wasn't alone.
Mr. PHILLIPS: No. Deb and Dan were with him in Bethesda. The commandant of the Marine Corps came shortly before the end. And then there were the Marine liaison people in Bethesda, just Marine enlisted and officers. And in those last minutes as they took him off of life support and waited for him to stop breathing, the Marines stood there in the room with Dan and Deb largely because they felt that it was Corporal Dunham's last battlefield, and there's, of course, a military ethic that you don't leave your men alone on the battlefield. And they were all there with him.
NORRIS: Michael Phillips, thanks for coming in to talk to us.
Mr. PHILLIPS: It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Michael Phillips is the author of "The Gift of Valor: A War Story."
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NORRIS: For photographs and video from the author's research in Iraq, visit our Web site, npr.org.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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