When President George W. Bush announced November 10 that a young corporal who made the ultimate sacrifice would be recognized with the Corps' first Medal of Honor since Vietnam, one 8th Marine Corps District Marine had no doubts about the award's merit.
While serving as the senior Marine for 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Sgt. Maj. Daniel A. Huff, who is now posted as the RS Dallas sergeant major, was in charge of some 900 Marines patrolling a volatile area in Iraq known as the H-K Triangle, so named for its location near the insurgent strongholds in Husaybah and Karabilah. During an ambush and subsequent fighting the afternoon of April 14, 2004, one of his Marines, Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, performed an heroic act similar to those Marines synonymous with the Corps' storied past; names like Basilone, Daly, and Butler.
After inspecting an Iraqi police station in Karabilah, Huff and his six-vehicle convoy were headed back to Husaybah to conduct a similar assessment when insurgents ambushed them with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. The battalion commander and several other Marines, as well as the civilian translator, were injured and needed to be evacuated.
"Our first priority was getting our wounded (Marines) to safety," said Huff. "We were in an L-shaped ambush, so the faster we got to the evacuation site, the better."
Combined Anti-Armor Team White, Dunham's unit, was inspecting a nearby water treatment plant for possible use as a Forward Observation Post. Upon hearing the sounds of an ambush nearby, they immediately responded to the area.
"There's just something about Marines. When they hear a fight, they come running," said Huff. "When CAAT White heard the explosions, they naturally gravitated toward it."
While closing on the fight, Dunham and his Marines encountered enemy vehicles and engaged the enemy after dismounting and splitting into two elements. During the fight, an enemy vehicle column approached the Marines. Three insurgents fled the area, but Dunham and two of his Marines quickly ran them down. Cpl. Dunham caught the first insurgent and tackled him to the ground. During the scuffle, Dunham noticed a live grenade in the enemy's hand and ordered his Marines to back up. The grenade fell, and Dunham instantly threw his Kevlar helmet and body on the explosive as it detonated. His split-second decision-making saved the lives of his fellow Marines, but ultimately cost him his own. He died eight days later at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. with his family at his side.
Huff said talk of nominating Dunham for the nation's highest military decoration began within a week of the conflict's end.
"Getting the eye-witness accounts from Marines was the hardest part," explained Huff. "We were still busy fighting insurgents throughout the area, and we couldn't pull Marines off the lines to get their version of the story. When the stories started rolling in, we realized how special (Dunham's) actions were."
Though Dunham's actions distinguished himself above the Marines in his unit, the Marines of 3/7 were widely decorated for their actions in and around the H-K Triangle. In all, four Marines received Silver Stars while several others were awarded the Bronze Star.
Though he was serving in a leadership position and sought to teach his Marines lessons in leadership, the young Marines taught as many lessons as they learned, said Huff. Dunham himself was an excellent teacher, he said.
"I learned one very important lesson from Dunham; today's Marines are just as good as yesterday's," he said. "The young men and women in our Corps today are as good as they have ever been."
Such acts of bravery are spoken with ghost-story reverence throughout Recruit Training and Officer Candidates School, most notably during the Crucible. Having served as both a drill instructor and sergeant instructor, Huff admitted that reading Dunham's summary of action rivals any object lesson and is equally inspirational.
"What he did is as heroic as anything we teach at boot camp," said Huff.
In the end, it was Dunham's split-second decision-making and personal sacrifice that set him apart in Huff's mind.
"Corporal Dunham's actions showed he had regard for his fellow Marines over regards for his own life," said Huff, a Bronze Star with Combat "V" recipient. "He's a hero to me."
The 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment Summary of Action was used for this report.