Despite taking place in the Information Age, very few of the heroic exploits of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines since September 11, 2001, have made their way into the living rooms of ordinary Americans — at least in any lasting way.
Whether this is the result of changing values among the American people, the general population’s perpetually dwindling attention span, or because there are so many things closer to home our nation is choosing to focus on instead of our service men and women’s gallant deeds and efforts (whether that be a rocky national economy or the latest season of American Idol), the fact is this generation has failed to identify and treasure its incarnations of historic military heroes like Audie Murphy, Jimmy Doolittle, Pappy Boyington, Bill Pitsenbarger, Bud Day, and countless others.
This disappointing reality is not unique to the current decade. Who, for example, can name the most recent pre-global war on terror (GWOT) recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor? The names of Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon — two Army special operations sergeants who received the nation’s highest award for their heroic actions in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 — are utterly foreign to the vast majority of the same American population that can name the latest movie star to file for divorce, the latest starlet to have borne a child out of wedlock, or the latest teen sensation to enter alcohol rehab.
Part of the problem is a lack of reporting on stories of true heroism among the men and women serving this country in war zones around the world. After all, how can people know of the deeds being done by our best and brightest if the news media — whose sole raison d’être is to report on deeds and events — doesn’t the job it exists to do?
This lack of reporting on American military heroism isn’t due to a lack of media access to the military in any form. On the contrary, Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom have begun a new era of access for journalists who desire to observe firsthand coalition military operations abroad, on the front lines, or in the rear, as part of the Department of Defense’s media embed program.
The ability to embed with coalition troops and report from the battlefront has spawned a new generation of independent combat journalists. Intrepid individuals — often veterans — like Michael Yon, J.D. Johannes, Michael Totten, Bill Roggio, Pat Dollard, and Bill Ardolino have followed in the footsteps of legendary World War II reporter Ernie Pyle, giving generously of their time and resources to travel to and within the combat zones that make up the many fronts of the global war on terror, for the dual purpose of accurately reporting on events (something so many media outlets have demonstrated time and again that they are incapable of doing) and of telling stories that simply would not make it back to the American people any other way.
However, a mere handful of individuals cannot, by themselves, provide a nation with enough of that which it so desperately needs in this age of ephemeral pleasures and doom-and-gloom news reports: true stories of courage and sacrifice, bravery, and gallantry shown by our fighting men and women around the world on a daily basis.
In reality, there have been countless cases of exceptional courage under fire to this point in the war on terror, and there will doubtless be many more before this generational conflict has drawn to a close.
It is cliché (but entirely accurate) to say that every man and woman fighting for America deserves respect and acknowledgment. It is also accurate, though, that there are some who go above and beyond even the bravery and valor shown by the “average” soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who puts his or her life on the line, day in and day out, in defense of America and in pursuit of our nation’s goals, safety, and interests.
Names like Eric Moser and Chris Corriveau, two paratroopers who stood shoulder-to-shoulder against dozens of al-Qaeda fighters on a rooftop in Iraq, fighting for their lives and for their country’s honor; Zach Rhyner, an Air Force combat controller who saved the lives of dozens of American special forces soldiers through his quick, effective actions in the middle of an overwhelming Taliban ambush; and Michael Monsoor, a Navy SEAL who leapt onto an enemy grenade, sacrificing himself to save the lives of his teammates despite the fact he was the only person who could have escaped the blast with his life, are far more deserving of remembrance than are the pop idols with which our nation has filled the place formerly reserved for such true heroes as these.
This is far too brief a space to recount even a fraction of the total number of heroic stories that deserve remembrance and celebration on this Memorial Day and every day hereafter. So I will today limit myself to presenting a selection of four exceptional warriors — one from each branch of service — whose names and deeds every American should know. These stories alone do not even begin to break the surface of the reservoir of deeds those fighting for our nation have carried out. However, each of these men is a true hero in every sense of the word, having fought in defense of America and having made the ultimate sacrifice for his mission and for his fellow men.
Michael P. Murphy, United States Navy
Michael P. Murphy, a native of Smithtown, New York, had a passion for history and a desire to do great things. While attending Penn State University, Murphy — or “Murph,” as he was known — became interested in joining the Navy SEALs, the U.S. Navy’s elite sea-air-land commando group.
Upon graduating from college, Murphy declined to attend the several law schools to which he was accepted, opting instead for Officer Candidate School and Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in Coronado, California.
In April, 2005 his SEAL Delivery Vehicle team was deployed to Afghanistan — a trip from which the young lieutenant would never return.
On June 28 of that year, Murphy was leading a four-man SEAL squad in Kunar Province, in remote eastern Afghanistan, when his team came into contact with three goat herders. After weighing their options, Murphy and his men decided to release the three civilians unharmed. This humane move would end up being costly, as the Afghans immediately went to the local Taliban leadership and reported the SEALs’ presence.
As Murphy’s small team moved onto a sheer mountainside, forty Taliban fighters ambushed them, pinning them down under withering fire. All four SEALs were immediately wounded, with the squad’s radio operator taking a bullet to the hand as he tried to make a radio call to the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) at Bagram Air Base.
Recognizing the necessity of making contact with a supporting force, and that it would be impossible to do so in the ravine the four SEALs were being forced into by the overwhelming enemy force, Murphy dashed into the open, exposing himself to greater enemy fire in exchange for a clearer transmission signal.
Murphy managed to reach the QRF and provided his team’s position and status while taking and returning fire, despite being hit in the back by an enemy round. A special operations helicopter arrived on the scene shortly, only to be downed by a Taliban-fired rocket propelled grenade. The aircraft crashed, killing all 16 SEALs and Army special operations aviators aboard.
Nearly out of ammunition and with their rescuers having been killed, Murphy and his fellow SEALs continued to fight until they had repelled the Taliban ambush — an action that cost three of the four their lives. By the end of that two-hour battle, Murphy and two of his SEALs were dead. However, their actions allowed the fourth member of their team, a SEAL named Marcus Luttrell, to survive the battle and to evade enemy capture until being rescued by U.S. forces four days later.
“By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit and inspirational devotion to his men in the face of certain death,” says the official Navy report of the incident, “Lt. Murphy was able to relay the position of his unit, an act that ultimately led to the rescue of Luttrell and the recovery of the remains of the three who were killed in the battle.
On October 22, 2007, Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, by President Bush, who presented the award to Murphy’s parents and brother in a White House ceremony.
According to the Medal’s citation, Murphy’s willingness to “gallantly give his life for his country and for the cause of freedom” in a remote corner of Afghanistan exemplified “selfless leadership, courageous actions, and extraordinary devotion to duty.” It demonstrated all of this indeed — as well as a devotion to his brothers in arms, whom he died both saving and trying to save.
Jason Dunham, United States Marine Corps
Jason Dunham, of Scio, New York, was killed in Iraq in 2004, at the age of 23. Had Dunham not given his life for his comrades nearly five years ago, he would have turned 28 last fall on the very day the U.S. Marine Corps, which has been fortunate beyond measure to have contained men of Dunham’s quality for over two centuries, turned 233.
Dunham’s death in Iraq is not in itself what makes his a story of heroism, though. Rather, it is his final actions, stunning in their selflessness, which deserve to be known and remembered. According to the Marines’ official report:
On April 14, 2004, Corporal Dunham heroically saved the lives of two of his fellow Marines by jumping on a grenade during an ambush in the town of Karabilah.
When a nearby Marine convoy was ambushed, Corporal Dunham led his squad to the site of the attack, where he and his men stopped a convoy of cars trying to make an escape. As he moved to search one of the vehicles, an insurgent jumped out and grabbed the corporal by the throat.
The corporal engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. At one point, he shouted to his fellow Marines, “No! No! No! Watch his hand!”
Moments later, an enemy grenade rolled out and Corporal Dunham jumped on the grenade to protect his fellow Marines, using his helmet and body to absorb the blast. Corporal Dunham succumbed to his wounds on April 22, 2004.
At the time of the battle in question, Lance Corporal Mark Edward Dean, a close friend of Dunham’s,
didn’t recognize the wounded Marine being loaded into the back of his Humvee. Blood from shrapnel wounds in the Marine’s head and neck had covered his face. Then Lance Cpl. Dean spotted the tattoo on his chest — an Ace of Spades and a skull — and realized he was looking at one of his closest friends, Cpl. Dunham. A volunteer firefighter back home in Owasso, Okla., Lance Cpl. Dean says he knew from his experience with car wrecks that his friend had a better chance of surviving if he stayed calm.
“You’re going to be all right,” Lance Cpl. Dean recalled saying to Dunham as the Humvee raced against the inevitability of time and mortal wounds on a doomed quest to save the life of a brave Marine whose selfless act had just saved the lives of his comrades.
“We’re going to get you home.”
The situation was eerily familiar to Dean, who recalled Dunham’s words to him and their comrades while on a trip to Las Vegas shortly before leaving the U.S. for Iraq. Dunham told them that he was planning to extend his enlistment and stay in Iraq for the battalion’s entire tour. “You’re crazy for extending,” Lance Cpl. Dean said. “Why?”
Cpl. Dunham responded: “I want to make sure everyone makes it home alive. I want to be sure you go home to your wife alive.”
And he did just that.
Dunham’s parents accepted his posthumously-awarded Medal of Honor from President Bush in a ceremony at the White House on January 11, 2007.
Ross McGinnis, United States Army
When most young men are turning 17, they are thinking about their upcoming senior year of high school, their sports career, or their choice of college. When Ross McGinnis of Knox, Pennsylvania, turned 17, he walked straight down to the recruiter’s office and joined the Army via the delayed enlistment program.
By the age of 18, the ambidextrous McGinnis was in training to be an infantryman, where he qualified as a sharpshooter with both his left and right hands. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, based in Schweinfurt, Germany, where he was the youngest soldier in the unit.
In August 2006, he found himself in Iraq, where he distinguished himself so greatly in his first three months that a waiver was requested — and granted — to promote him to Specialist (E-4) despite his lacking the requisite time in service.
On December 4 of that year, at the age of 19, Ross McGinnis traded his life for the lives of four members of his squad when he jumped on a grenade and shielded them from the blast.
On the last day of his life, Private McGinnis was manning the .50-caliber machine gun mounted in a turret atop his Humvee and serving as the rear guard in a mounted combat patrol against insurgents and sectarian fighters. As the convoy made a turn onto a narrow street, a fragmentation grenade was thrown from the rooftop of an adjacent building. According to the official report:
[McGinnis] immediately yelled “Grenade!” on the vehicle’s intercom system to alert the four other members of his crew…[he] made an attempt to personally deflect the grenade, but was unable to prevent it from falling through the gunner’s hatch.
According to platoon sergeant Cedric Thomas, who was commanding the vehicle, “McGinnis yelled ‘Grenade. … It’s in the truck!’… I looked out of the corner of my eye as I was crouching down and I saw him pin it down.”
“He had time to jump out of the truck. He chose not to.”
Instead, according to his award citation,
[R]ather than leaping from the gunner’s hatch to safety, Private McGinnis made the courageous decision to protect his crew. In a selfless act of bravery, in which he was mortally wounded, Private McGinnis covered the live grenade, pinning it between his body and the vehicle and absorbing most of the explosion.
Private McGinnis’ gallant action,…extraordinary heroism and selflessness at the cost of his own life … directly saved four men from certain serious injury or death.
For his actions, McGinnis was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for combat heroism. On June 2, 2008, that award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
According to a later report, “Thomas remembered McGinnis talking about how he would respond in such a situation. McGinnis said then he didn’t know how he would act, but when the time came, he delivered.”
“He gave his life to save his crew,” Thomas said. “He’s a hero. He’s a professional. He was just an awesome guy.”
Jason Cunningham, United States Air Force
Jason Cunningham of Carlsbad, New Mexico, joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 19, but he didn’t stay long. After just under four years in the fleet, Cunningham decided on a radical career change, setting his sights on joining an elite Air Force fraternity known as Pararescuemen (or PJs). The Air Force has fewer than 1,000 of these highly trained professionals whose job is to deploy by any means necessary — sea, air, or land — to rescue downed aircrew members and injured special operators.
After two years of selection and training, Cunningham succeeded in his goal of becoming a PJ and was assigned to the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody AFB, Georgia. Only eight months later, he deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The PJs there were based in an air operations building that also housed a forward surgical team — a training opportunity he took advantage of almost immediately.
“Every time we had a casualty event [Cunningham] was always the first one here offering to help,” said Dr. (Maj.) Brian Burlingame, the surgical unit’s commander. “His enthusiasm was just genuine to the core, which was what endeared him to us. He was like a little brother.”
“He had more motivation than any one man should have,” said a Pararescue colleague. “He was all about saving people’s lives.”
Besides honing his personal medical skills, Cunningham’s involvement with the surgeons down the hall at Bagram directly resulted in a development that would save the lives of American soldiers in the very near future: the allowing of PJs to carry whole blood into combat as a part of their medical loadout. This was a controversial step, Dr. Burlingame told the Air Force Times:
“Blood is an FDA-controlled substance. It’s very, very regulated.” Special training, not to mention lots of paperwork, is required before medics are considered qualified to administer blood in the field. After Cunningham and Burlingame started talking, all the pararescuers here took the classes and filled out the paperwork.
“We then pushed blood forward with [Cunningham's] group,” Burlingame said.
Perhaps the most famous battle of the first years of Operation Enduring Freedom, the battle of “Roberts Ridge” (a subset of Operation Anaconda, which saw a loss of life unprecedented in the special operations community since Mogadishu in 1993, and surpassed since only by the operation Lt. Michael P. Murphy, noted above, was a part of), was Cunningham’s first — and last — taste of combat. At the scene, Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter which was taking heavy fire while attempting to insert Roberts’ team onto a hilltop to watch over the Anaconda battlefield. A second helicopter had deposited the remainder of Roberts’ squad and an Air Force combat controller (Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, whose actions during the battle cost him his life, and earned him a posthumous Air Force Cross) on the hilltop in an attempt to rescue the fallen sailor, whom Predator UAV footage had shown being captured by Taliban fighters.
A quick reaction force (QRF) composed mainly of a squad of Army Rangers was launched to reinforce the outmanned and outgunned Americans who had quickly become pinned down in an exposed position. As it approached the landing zone, the QRF helicopter came under such significant ground fire that it was forced to make a crash landing in an exposed area of the hilltop, only 100 meters from a fortified enemy position. The soldiers on board immediately took fire, and casualties began to mount instantly.
Cunningham worked feverishly to treat the wounded Rangers and aviators, doing so in the back of the downed Chinook helicopter until it caught fire and became the target of increasingly accurate enemy mortar fire. Making the decision to move his patients, Cunningham crossed the line of fire seven separate times while successfully transporting them to higher ground. He then was forced to move them twice more to avoid the enemy fire raining down on their static, vulnerable casualty collection-points.
Finally, just after midnight, after having so successfully defied enemy fire so as to move and treat his patients, Cunningham’s luck ran out, and he was shot in the abdomen just below his protective vest. According to the Air Force Times:
Cunningham must have known he was in serious trouble. But despite his worsening condition, he continued to treat patients and advise others on how to care for the critically wounded. One of the two blood packs he had brought [and which he was directly responsible for PJs being able to carry] saved a badly wounded Ranger. The medics gave the other packet to Cunningham himself, whose life was slowly flowing out in a red stream onto the white snow.
Nearly 20 hours after suffering serious internal injuries, and not long before the area became cold enough for rescue helicopters to arrive and evacuate the wounded fighters, Cunningham succumbed to his wounds. He treated patients to the end, and was credited afterward with having almost single-handedly made sure that only seven men died, rather than seventeen. Such dedication and seriousness of purpose ended up costing him his own life.
Every wounded man he treated survived the encounter, and for his extraordinary heroism and gallant action in living the Pararescue motto (“That Others May Live”), he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest award that the USAF offers. According to the citation, “As a result of [Cunningham's] extraordinary heroism, his team returned 10 seriously wounded personnel to life-saving medical care.”
“He was right in the thick of it, doing it right up to the end,” said a fellow PJ. “Jason was right where every PJ wants to be. He was where guys needed him, and he was saving lives.”
No Greater Love …
These four men exemplify a mindset that is both incomprehensible and unimaginable to all who have not been in such a situation. When faced with a life or death situation, with an escape route both simple and available, every one of them chose death, against every instinct of self-preservation. And, in doing so, they allowed the men with them, marked for death, to keep their lives.
There truly can be no greater love, no more heroic acts, than such as these. The men whose lives were saved by the direct intervention of Danny Dietz, Jason Dunham, Ross McGinnis, Jason Cunningham, and others will carry the burden of gratitude with them to the grave, and beyond.
The mindset that compels a man to put himself into harm’s way for the purpose of saving another is impossible to express; however, it is a defining characteristic of the true warrior who has faced combat and who has experienced the reality of having his life entirely in the hands of the men next to him and having each of theirs in his.
As put by Dr. Joseph Blake, a sociologist who has researched the act of soldiers throwing themselves on grenades and other acts of sacrifice in the line of fire, “A combat situation has not a whole lot to do with patriotism or the folks back home. … They are fighting for their buddies. They don’t want to let their buddies down.”
Yet these heroes, and all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have died in combat, have done so also, if indirectly, for the sake of all Americans. To these men and women, every American owes eternal gratitude and a commitment never to take for granted those things that we, due to their sacrifices, can continue to enjoy — things that they, due to those same sacrifices, will never again be able to.
On this Memorial Day, take a moment to thank a friend, family member, or even a total stranger who has served — or is serving — this country. For though they will never seek the praise and thanks of their fellow man, all will appreciate the expression of gratitude.
It is our solemn duty to honor those who have kept us safe and free for the past 232-plus years. America has stood strong all this time largely because of men like these. And it is because of men like them that it shall remain so.
The sacrifices of these true warriors, like those of the countless others whose stories have not yet been told to a public, did not make them heroes. It simply demonstrated what heroes they were all along.
Now it is up to us to remember them.