The Congressional Medal of Honor has only been awarded 3,460 times in the history of the United States, more than half of those posthumously. Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old Marine corporal, is a nominee due to his actions in Iraq. While fighting with an insurgent, he saw the insurgent drop a grenade. Jason dropped and covered the grenade with his Kevlar helmet, saving the lives of his men. Michael M. Phillips, a reporter who has been on four tours in Iraq with the Marines, tells his story.
Gift of Valor begins with a discussion that could sound like any discussion in a college dorm room or around the water cooler – except that this discussion was about the best way to dispose of a live grenade. Jason maintained that the Kevlar helmets would contain the blast. Other Marines had other opinions, and there's the required Marine joke about throwing a private on the grenade. But only Jason's theory was tested. This book is his story.
He was stationed in Iraq near the Syrian border, and a great leader to his men. While fortifying the camp, which meant carrying heavy baskets of sand in the hot sun, Jason "worked alongside his men for a hot, hard week, and his men gratefully took notice" (p 10). He was protective of his men, quoting General Patton's famous line "The goal is not to die for your country. It's to make the other bastard die for his" and promised not to let any of his men die. The book traces Jason's journey into the military and the journey of several of his friends. Jason reenlists to keep his men safe, even though he himself could return to the safety of home.
The height of the book is an ambush on a convoy Jason is on. The battle is heavy and bloody. Marines are shot, though most survive; Phillips doesn't hesitate in giving the reader the bloodiest detail. In describing one Marine named Lewis, he says, "The third bullet had entered his left triceps, narrowly missed the bone, nicked the vital brachial artery, slashed through his biceps, and came to a stop inside his arm. Lewis saw the point of the bullet poking out of his skin and worried it might catch on his uniform. So he pushed the slug all the way back in" (87). Lewis survived.
After Jason's own self-sacrificing injury, the author follows the Marines through the hospitals and doctor's diagnoses, the operations, the amputations, and Jason's brain surgeries. Phillips discusses the nurses and doctors, some of whom are young and cheerful and naive eve, some of whom are worn and cynical about the wounded who just keep coming in. One nurse notes how, whenever Marines start whining or feeling sorry for themselves, all the nurses have to do is address the men as "Marine," and the men snap back to their tough, Marine mindset. Jason is flown from Baghdad to a US military hospital in Germany and finally to the Navy Medical Center in Maryland.
Be warned: this is a gory book. And one filled with swears, though less, I'm sure, than Marines actually use. But The Gift of Valor seems accurate in all other senses. The sights, the smells, all the details evoke the desert and the hospitals. The story is gripping, and all the characters seem very real. Even though the author pieces together much of the story from interviews and documents, he still creates a vivid picture of a young Marine corporal and the valor within.