To the family of Corporal Jason Dunham – welcome. Dan and Deb, it was delightful to spend some personal time with you before the ceremony. You are truly great Americans and, just as all of us are proud of Jason, he would also be extraordinarily proud of you.
Welcome also to Jason’s brothers in arms from the United States Marine Corps. And welcome to all of Jason’s relatives and friends – including those who’ve traveled here from Scio, New York.
Yesterday, President Bush presented the Dunham family with this Nation’s highest award for valor, in Jason’s name – the Medal of Honor. Today, it’s this Department’s honor to recognize this great hero – and his family – as his name is inscribed here in the Department of Defense’s Hall of Heroes.
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve never served in the military, but very early on, I learned something about what it means to be a hero. On December 7th, 1941 – on the day of Pearl Harbor – I was four years old. America went to war as a nation – I still remember the blackouts, the ration stamps, and the newsreels at the local theater.
In my neighborhood of row houses was a grass-covered small square where 4 to 5 streets came together, and where we kids used to play. One day in 1945, workers put up a sign that said, “Francis Callahan Jr. Square”. My parents told me that the Callahan family lived right there on the square. Their son, Francis Callahan Jr., a Marine, had been killed at Iwo Jima, so they named the square after him. I learned then that war meant sacrifice –sacrifice for the individual, and sacrifice for his family.
No servicemen or women go to war intending to make the ultimate sacrifice – in fact, every Marine who went to Iwo Jima expected to come home. While warfighters do die in combat, they don’t choose to do so.
But there are rare heroes who affirmatively make the decision to do an extraordinary thing – to give up their lives for others.
That’s the decision Jason made, in April 2004 in Husaybah. And that’s the reason we gather today, to stand in awe of that choice and to pay tribute to that sacrifice.
Like Jason, and Francis Callahan from Baltimore, there was another Marine who gave everything he had to give – Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. Sergeant Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York – not all that far from Jason’s home town of Scio.
In October 1942, on Guadalcanal, Sergeant Basilone – under constant enemy fire – battled through enemy lines to bring his gunners the shells they urgently needed…and he helped guarantee the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment. For his courage beyond measure, Sergeant Basilone – like Jason – was awarded the Medal of Honor.
But that wasn’t all. A couple years later, rather than let others take his place in combat, Sergeant Basilone volunteered again for action and returned to the fight in the Pacific. In 1945, on the black sands of Iwo Jima, an enemy mortar round exploded and took his life as he was taking action to save his men.
Dan and Deb, the reason I mention Sergeant Basilone is because I believe that heroes like Sergeant Basilone and Jason Dunham share the same fundamental character and the same profound sense of responsibility for others. If Jason had survived and continued on as a Marine, or become a police officer or a fire fighter, I am confident that he would have again put himself in harm’s way to save others.
It’s who he is. It is this profound sense of responsibility for others that always shines through in people like Jason whenever the situation demands.
The Medal of Honor is surrounded by grandeur, but at the end of the day, what it reflects in its simplicity is the character of each hero who receives it. And each hero’s character, in turn, is a reflection of the people who have had the greatest influence on him over time – his friends, his community, and, most of all, his family. This nation is eternally grateful to Jason – and eternally grateful to his family.
The important thing is that what Jason did lives on after him. If he were here today, he would probably tell you that he is just the caretaker of a medal that many deserved. Jason – and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice – remind us of the price of freedom.
It’s a price that is periodically required to be paid in blood and suffering and courage… And in this new war on terror, it’s a price that has been paid here in the Pentagon, in New York, in Pennsylvania, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and wherever the brave men and women who wear the cloth of our Nation serve.
God bless Jason’s family – may they be comforted in their grief. God bless Jason’s comrades in arms in the United States Marine Corps – may they, too, be comforted, and uplifted by his example. And God continue to bless this great American nation – may we all be inspired by Jason, his family and his fellow American Heroes to respond to life’s greatest challenges with self-sacrifice, courage and dignity.
Jason, God Bless. Semper Fidelis.