Honoring a hero

From Hammock Publishing’s Bill Hudgins (Hudge in comments here), who is covering this weekend’s opening of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia, comes a note on how moving is was to hear the announcement that a Medal of Honor will be awarded posthumously to Cpl. Jason Dunham who died in Iraq in April, 2004. The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Phillips details the award. Phillips first wrote about Dunham in a Wall Street Journal article in 2004 and in his book, The Gift of Valor. When an attacker dropped a grenade threatening the patrol he was leading, Dunham hurled himself on top of it, using his helmet to try to blunt the force of the blast. From the injuries he sustained from the blast, he died eight days later. According to his fellow Marines, Dunham had extended his enlistment shortly before he died so he could help his comrades.

  • Hudge

    This is probably going to be longer than a typical comment should be. I will back up to say that I, neither a Marine nor a veteran, attended the dedication because Hammock Publishing produces Semper Fi, the Magazine of the Marine Corps League (www.mcleague.org). The Congressionally chartered League was founded by Gen. Lejeune more than 60 years ago to help the Corps carry out its promise that “once a Marine, always a Marine.” The Museum has been a dream for many years, as a permanent home for the Corps’ treasures, mementoes and legacy. The League has been instrumental in furthering this dream and bringing it to fruition.

    Nov. 10, 1776, marks the 231st birthday of the Marine Corps, and the day was filled with Marines old and young and their friends and family wishing each other Happy Birthday. The day is celebrated worldwide – Marines are stationed in more than 140 countries – and the celebrations often include a cake, cut with a Marine Mameluke sword.

    We started the day by going to the wreath laying ceremony at the Marine Corps National Memorial in Arlington (www.nps.gov/archive/gwmp/usmc.htm), the statue based closely on the iconic photo by the late Joe Rosenthal of the flag raising on Iwo Jima in WWII. After days of rain, Northern Virginia shook the drops off her shoulders and stood to attention with crystal blue skies. The rain had cleaned the air and shined the fall foliage which gleamed scarlet and gold around the Memorial – an appropriate color choice as these are the colors of the Corps.

    People started assembling a couple hours before the 10 a.m. ceremony, and we could hear in the distance riflemen practicing their salute, and Marine band drummers warming up. The crowd was a blend of League members in scarlet jackets and windbreakers, 50 or so Arizona veterans who had come clad in patch-bedecked vests or leathers, some biker vets from who knows where, VIPs in expensive suits and Marines in dress blues, with enough brass to keep 100 polishers up all night.

    The ceremony began as the President’s Own Marine Band marched in and played several tunes by their most famous leader, John Philip Souza. (Thomas Jefferson bestowed the name on this band.) Three platoons from Washington’s Marine Barracks at 8th and I streets marched out – they did not perform their world-famous drill, sadly, but formed an honor guard. The Commandant’s Own Band – the drum and bugle corps – joined the field and played during a number of maneuvers, including the presentation of the colors.

    The keynote speaker of the day was Va. Senator John Warner, himself a Marine. He talked about his experiences in the Marines, including a funny anecdote about being given the task of moving a half-size model of the Memorial to the main gate at Quantico, where it is today. The then-commandant of the Marine Corps warned the young lieutenant that there had better be no damage to the model. “The mission was accomplished” the Senator said, then added that as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he had recently succeeded in approving funds to repair the cracks that had formed in the model during that move more than 30 years ago.

    On a more serious and political note, Warner revealed that his recent comment that the situation in Iraq was “drifting sideways” was a quote from a young Marine he had met during a trip to see the situation first-hand. And, that as the senior senator from VA, he was looking forward to working with the new junior senator, James Webb, who had been Warner’s aide years ago in the Marines.

    The ceremony completed, we hustled south toward Quantico, VA, the mother base of the Corps. Traffic crawled periodically as normally lead-footed drivers panicked at the site of dozens of VA state troopers and other police. The bears weren’t hunting speeders this day – they were were to secure the area in anticipation of the arrival of President Bush as the keynote speaker at the Museum opening. Our late start almost cost us the opportunity to see the event – we pulled up to Lejeune Hall at Quantico (familiar to those who have seen the old TV series “Major Dad”) just as they were closing the doors on the last bus to the Museum.

    Maybe 10,000 or more people had got there before us. The League had seats fairly close to the front, and in my dark suit I felt somewhat out of place as I followed the scarlet jackets through the throng. As we sat down, my jaw dropped to see four or five Navajo Code Talkers in front of us with a small group of Young Marines, a youth group sponsored by the League. Sixty years ago, these Native Americans came off their reservation to help the nation that had so mistreated them and their ancestors to win a war, by using their unique language in a code that was never broken.

    It was a place filled with heroes. Survivors of Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Peleiu, the Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, Beirut, Fallujah and dozens of other battles. Recipients of the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross (note: no one wins a medal and most certainly not these. They are awarded, received, earned – not infrequently, posthumously). They were here because as young men and women, they had chosen to test themselves to a point beyond the reach of many of us, in order to earn the right to be called Marines. There’s an old saying that you can’t choose your family, but the thousands of Marines there would say otherwise. They weren’t coming to a museum opening – they were coming home.

    The crowd began to applaud as Air Force One and its decoy twins thundered in overhead. Giant TV screens broadcast the entry of the Marine brass and other dignitaries, guest speaker Jim Lehrer and finally, striding in alone from the Museum to the dais in front, President Bush.

    The ceremony included a display of the different flags carried by the Corps over more than two centuries, borne by Marines dressed in period uniforms. Four FA-18 Hornet jet fighters roared past overhead. Lehrer’s recollections of his time as a Marine were punctuated by calls of “OORAH” as fellow Marines enthusiastically agreed.

    Rex’s links tell the story of President Bush’s speech, and the stirring announcement of the Medal of Honor award, so I won’t go into that, except to say that he had a warm and receptive crowd. The President looked tired after the electoral “thumpin'” earlier in the week, so this must have been a cheering, comforting hour for him.

    The Museum was not open to tours that day, and he perfection of the day was marred, literally at the end, by a monumentally snafu’ed exit strategy. People had been streaming in all day to walk around the grounds and see various displays of Marine vehicles and weapons, but everyone had to leave at the same time via bus shuttles to offsite parking. The exits were not clearly marked to indicate which buses went to which parking lots, and the arrival of the buses was hampered by Quantico’s relatively narrow roads. Efforts to load handicapped visitors first meant further delays, and the crowd grew restive. Our group waited nearly two hours to board.

    The final event of the day was the League’s first-ever National Marine Corps League Marine Birthday Ball, held at a hotel in Falls Church. With a color guard from Quantico, a big cake sliced by a gleaming sword – the tradition is that the first piece is shared by the oldest and youngest Marines present, which in this case was an 80-plus Iwo veteran and a 19-year-old private. And who knew – Marines can dance!

    The Museum opens Nov. 13 to the public. It is absolutely worth the effort to get there if you are in the area, because once you’ve been through, you will have some inkling of what it takes to be a Marine.