A MEDAL OF HONOR REMINDER FROM 2004
SCIO, N.Y. – This is a small town outside of a small town, in the hills of Western New York, where most people work with their hands and their backs.
Where the men chew tobacco and drive pick-ups, where the women make pies and babies and look after husbands who live large and loud.
It’s a place so rural most Americans can’t imagine it, but a place so pure most Americans can’t forget it. It’s the place where we all grew up, or at least the place where we all dreamed of growing up, watching Mayberry or reading Huckleberry, skipping school to splash in the creek and run barefoot through the fields.
It’s that kind of place. The land of the free and the home of the brave.
And they had a funeral here on Saturday.
Up at the gym where the Tigers play. At least a thousand came, to hear the talks and see the casket rest underneath the basketball hoop. Then most of them walked the couple hundred yards up to the cemetery to see the Marines fire the guns and fold the flag.
It was the biggest thing ever to happen around here.
From all accounts, he was a great kid. Nice to people, not stuck up about his good looks or athletic ability. He was popular in school, where his mother teaches, and knew most of the younger kids in town because he’d babysat them one time or another. And in a place like Scio – pronounced sigh-oh, with the accent on the first syllable – it seems everybody knows everybody.
He wanted to go to college, but he didn’t have the grades for it. So he went in the Marine Corps.
That’s an easy thing to say – “He went in the Marine Corps” – but people who’ve never done it can’t begin to understand what it means. To lie in bed at the position of attention and sing the Marines Hymn every night at boot camp, to wear arguably the most honored uniform in the world, to be part of something larger and more noble than yourself. It gets into you.
And it got into him.
At least that’s what you figure from what happened.
It was two weeks ago in Karbala on check-point duty. There had been an attack on a convoy and things were a little tense and the 22-year-old from Scio was large and in charge, a squad leader with some cars to stop and some Marines to protect and, out of nowhere, one of these Iraqi guys starts running. Out of a car and away like crazy and the Scio kid was on him. The big farm boy fighting for somebody else’s freedom and from what the report said the Iraqi turned and let loose with a grenade.
In a movie, things would go into slow motion at a time like that. The rolling grenade, no pin, the Iraqi, your two buddies, all kind of slow on the screen. But life is never slow motion, there’s never time to think or calculate, there’s only time to act. You do what you do.
The cemetery in Scio stretches back from the main street up a side hill. The oldest graves are near the road and the newest graves are higher up, in the rear, above the level of the town. From the back of the cemetery, near where the mound of daisies and asters, roses and carnations, lies fresh and alone, you can look back down the hill and across the road to a house with two flags – one for the country and one for the corps.
It was a split-second, really, one of those split-seconds we remember for an eternity, when something so singular and sacred is done that the world stops and notices. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe there are just a few, and the angels in heaven.
It was the grenade and the Iraqi and the buddies and he threw himself on it.
They were his men and he was the corporal and he was a Marine and he was an American and he grew up in Scio and he threw himself on it.
And he was so strong it took him eight days to die.
That was at Bethesda Naval Hospital with his parents at his side. He never regained consciousness.
Somebody posted this on a website about what happened:
“There is only one word for a man who would throw himself on a grenade to save his squad –
His two buddies made it through. Because he used his body to shield them.
Because that’s what a man does.
That’s what an American fighting man does.
From a place like Scio.
Where this weekend there were yellow ribbons on the trees around the school, and on the utility poles, leading up to the cemetery with the mound of fresh flowers.
And the little metal marker from the funeral home.
Cpl Jason L. Dunham, 1982 – 2004.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2012