WASHINGTON -- The Medal of Honor awarded Jan. 11 at a recent White House ceremony belongs to all service members, according to the parents of the man who earned the honor.
Cpl. Jason L. Dunham of Scio, N.Y., posthumously received America's highest military decoration two years and nine months after succumbing to a mortal brain injury while fighting in Iraq. He served with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, based in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
"We're accepting this honor for Jason, but we're also accepting this in all the servicemen and women's names," said mother Debra Dunham.
"Jason believed that all men on this earth should be free," said father Dan Dunham. "He also believed in his friends."
The Navy Medal of Honor, shared with the Marine Corps, is a bronze medallion hanging from an anchor sewn to a sky-blue ribbon. Presented posthumously, it is encased in oak and glass; otherwise, its bearer would wear it around his neck. But the latest Marine bestowed with the honor was not present in the flesh.
In spirit, on the other hand, Dunham filled every corner of the White House.
"We wish that Jason would have been able to be here so we could watch him," said Deb. "But we know he's watching."
In a lively reunion of sorts, more than 80 Marines from Dunham's unit soaked up their stately surroundings – many with digital cameras.
Lounging about the White House and bedecked in dress blues, the men laughed and cried as a band of brothers, a bond forged in combat, according to Maj. Trent Gibson, who was Dunham's company commander.
Six venerable Medal of Honor recipients attended the ceremony, as well as some of America's highest military and government figures.
Seated among others in the East Room were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Sen. John McCain, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway.
Before the citation was read, President George W. Bush gave personal praise to Jason: "He had a natural gift for leadership, and a compassion that led him to take others under his wing. The Marine Corps took the best of this young man, and made it better."
Bush said Jason represented the best of young Americans.
The room came to attention as the president took his position beside the mother. The narrator began reciting: "The President of the United States, in the name of the Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor posthumously to …"
Hearing her son's name, Deb's body began wrenching slightly, apparently trying to contain her emotions. With a tearful president at her left and Dan at her right, Deb held their hands throughout the citation – or they held hers. Dan and Deb's three children stood behind them.
The citation went on: "By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Cpl. Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country …"
With the citation given, Bush presented the encased medal to the family.
Acknowledging all service members afterward, the father said "Their names are all attached to this medal. They're all courageous. They all have valor. It's something that I want them all to know: They're part of this medal. It's as much theirs as it is Jason's."
Wall Street Journal reporter Michael M. Phillips, who covered the war in Iraq alongside Dunham's unit, also attended the ceremony. Phillips first introduced Dunham's story to a mass audience with a front-page article published May 25, 2004. He later wrote the unabridged story in "The Gift of Valor; A War Story," which narrates Jason's life and death, from growing up in Scio, to giving his life in service to country, to an eight-day journey home battling his wounds.
On April 14, 2004, in Iraq near the Syrian border, the corporal used his helmet and his body to smother an exploding Mills Bomb let loose by a raging insurgent whom Dunham and two other Marines tried to subdue.
The explosion dazed and wounded Lance Cpl. William Hampton and Pfc. Kelly Miller. The insurgent stood up after the blast and was immediately killed by Marine small-arms fire.
After the grenade exploded under Dunham's helmet, he lay face down with a few tiny pieces of shrapnel lodged in his head. The hard, molded mesh that was his Kevlar helmet was now scattered yards around into clods and shredded fabric. Dunham never regained consciousness and died eight days later at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with his mother and father at his bedside. He was 22.
Dunham, buried in Scio, is the second warrior and first Marine to earn the medal since the war in Iraq began. On April 4, 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith posthumously earned the medal for organizing a defense that held off a company-sized attack on more than 100 vulnerable coalition soldiers.
In the defense, Smith manned a .50 caliber machine gun in an exposed position until he was mortally wounded.
Before Dunham, the last Marine actions to earn the medal happened May 8, 1970, in Vietnam, according to Marine Corps History Division records. A Medal of Honor citation details Lance Cpl. Miguel Keith's machine-gun charge that inspired a platoon facing nearly overwhelming
odds: Wounded, Keith ran into "fire-swept terrain." Wounded again by a grenade, he still attacked, taking out enemies in the forward rush.
Keith fought until mortally wounded; his platoon came out on top despite being heavily outnumbered.
The last Marine to receive the Medal of Honor was Maj. Gen. James L. Day, who distinguished himself as a corporal in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. On Jan. 20, 1998, more than half a century later, President Bill Clinton presented the medal to Day, who passed away that year.