WASHINGTON -- There was such a hush in the hotel ballroom that one could hear a pin drop in a haystack as Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee told short stories of how Marines are respected around the world and of three heroes from the battlefields of Iraq.
Speaking to the audience at the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation's 10th Annual Invitational Gala in Atlantic City in mid-June, Hagee said a recent Gallup poll indicated that the American people recognize what the nation's servicemen and women are doing today. "They stood right at the top of the profession most admired by the American people," Hagee noted. "For those of us wearing the uniform today, that's quite a responsibility that we have to carry on."
That, Hagee said, reminded him of another story having to do with the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, which is a touchstone for Marines. "Marines marching from Paris toward Belleau Wood stopped the Germans about 45 kilometers from Paris in about a two-week battle that occurred in that small forest," the general noted.
"What most Marines don't know (is that) something else occurred there almost 70 years later," Hagee said. "The battlefield looks today just like it did in June of 1918. During rainstorms, quite often, relics come up from that battle. In the mid-'80s, a Marine came up out of the ground and he was to be buried at the American cemetery," the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery south of the village of Belleau, France.
Hagee said about 70 Marines attended the burial. "But what wasn't expected was that more than 400 Frenchmen came to the interment," he said. "They came for one reason – to honor the United States Marine who had given his life in defense of their country. That's the reputation that we have; not only here in the United States, but throughout the world."
When he was in France for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Hagee said, Frenchmen came up and, even though they didn't speak English, they got their point across: "We thank you very much for what you do, what you have done for our country and what you are doing for the world today."
The general then asked all the active duty Marines at the gala to stand up and be recognized, which resulted in thunderous applause from the audience. He then told heartwarming stories about individual Marines who represent all active duty Marines and those who have gone before.
His first story was about the heroism of then-1st Lt. Brian Chontosh, who was recently promoted to captain.
While serving as a platoon commander in an armored Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on top in Iraq, Chontosh was caught in an ambush. His platoon came under heavy enemy fire from AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. An RPG struck one of his Humvees, killing one Marine and wounding another.
"He was in the kill zone of the ambush," Hagee noted. "He saw the only way out was to drive right toward a .50-caliber machine gun. So he told his driver to attack that machine gun emplacement. The driver drove straight at it, and the machine gunner up top at point-blank range took out the Iraqi machine gun emplacement.
"He was still receiving fire, so he saw a trench line on his left and told his driver to go into the trench line," Hagee continued. "The good news is they got to the trench line. The bad news is it was an Iraqi trench line.
"This lieutenant got out of his vehicle with an M-16 in one hand and a 9 mm pistol in the other hand, and he started working his way down the trench line," Hagee continued. "He ran out of ammunition. He picked up an AK-47 and continued working down the trench line. He ran out of ammunition again. He picked up another AK-47 and continued working down the trench line. He reached the end of the trench line and there was an Iraqi machine gun emplacement sitting up on the top. He picked up an Iraqi RPG and took out that machine gun emplacement.
"He didn't get a scratch – not one scratch," Hagee noted. "I had the honor and pleasure of awarding this nation's second highest award for bravery – the Navy Cross – about three weeks ago. When I gave it to him and thanked him for his service and what he'd done, he said, 'Sir, I was doing it for my Marines, to take care of my Marines.'"
Hagee then told of the heroism of Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, who wasn't so lucky. About three weeks ago, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., asked Hagee to come to the hospital to pin a Purple Heart on Dunham in the presence of the corporal's parents.
"It had to be done right away because they were afraid he was going to die," Hagee noted.
When the commandant arrived at Dunham's bedside, the corporal wasn't conscious. "I was able to pin the Purple Heart on him, and he passed away about 45 minutes later," Hagee said.
He said all Dunham's parents could talk about was how he felt about the Marine Corps and how he loved and respected the Marine Corps. "They have a 15-year-old son who wants to join the Marine Corps," the general said. "And they're going to support him."
The commandant told of how Dunham, a 22—year-old squad leader, was engaged in close combat with an enemy combatant in Iraq when an enemy hand grenade threatened the safety of Dunham and his fellow Marines. Dunham reportedly jumped on the grenade, shielding the blast using his helmet and himself, and was severely wounded.
"He was thinking of only one thing: the Marines in his squad," Hagee said. Dunham was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
Hagee's last story was about another 22-year-old squad leader, Cpl. Timothy C. Tardif, who was suffering from grenade fragment wounds and had been evacuated to Germany, but found a way back to the battlefields of Iraq.
"He was in a platoon that was in a very fierce firefight, and he was able to lead his squad across an open road into a village to secure the right flank of the village," Hagee said. "The good news is they made it across. The bad news is they were in a hand grenade-throwing contest.
The battle continued for a couple of hours. Tardif was seriously wounded by shrapnel, but he refused to be evacuated, the general said. "They were successful and secured the village," Hagee noted. "But as they were pulling out of the village, Corporal Tardif passed out because of loss of blood."
Tardif was evacuated to the Army's Regional Medical Center at Landstuhl, Germany, where most of the wounded servicemen and women go before returning to the United States.
"Somehow, Corporal Tardif convinced the doctors that he need to be checked out of the hospital," Hagee said. "The doctor checked him out, and Corporal Tardif got ahold of a corpsman and borrowed a utility uniform. Then he went to the Air Force base and talked his way onto an aircraft to go back to Iraq."
Hagee said this was in April 2003, and Tardif stayed in Iraq until September, when his squad returned home. Pointing out that Tardif is married, the general said the corporal called his wife from Germany and told her, "Honey, I could come home right now, but I'm a Marine. And I have responsibilities. I'm a squad leader and my Marines need me. And I'm going to go back."
"That's the type of young Marine that we have in the Marine Corps today," Hagee said. "It's also the type of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen we have in all of our services today. It's the type of young Americans we have in all of our armed forces today."
He then told foundation members, "Your support of them means much more than you realize."
The foundation, formed in 1995 by former Marines and law enforcement personnel, awards scholarship bonds to help finance the education of children who lost parents in the line of duty. Scholarships are now given to various federal law enforcement agencies, and also apply to eligible children of members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. The foundation raised more than $11 million last year. In addition, the foundation provided scholarship aid to the children whose parents were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, Sept. 11, 2001, Pentagon attack and the February 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster. The foundation also decided last year to include children of coalition partners in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Great Britain, Poland and Australia.
All donations go toward the assistance of children. No administrative costs of any type are charged to the foundation. Membership is free.