Lost Heroes of the War on Terror: Gallant Deeds and Untold Tales

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.