Corporal Jason Dunham (USMC photo)
Ships are made of steel. They are filled with machinery, electronics and weapons. In the animal/mineral/vegetable game, they would be mineral. They have no souls.
But something mysterious happens as a ship approaches commissioning. A crew embarks, and the cold beast begins to take on a personality. Each individual Sailor or Marine contributes to the whole, and the ship begins to breathe.
And if the members of the crew are lucky, they serve on a vessel named after someone whose life and story establish a foundation upon which a legacy can be built.
USS JASON DUNHAM (DDG 109) is such a ship. Officially called the Pre-Commissioning Unit JASON DUNHAM, the vessel is scheduled for commissioning this autumn in Fort Lauderdale.
It is the namesake of Corporal Jason Dunham, a 22 year old Marine and Medal of Honor recipient. Six years ago this month, Corporal Dunham was leading a Combined Anti-Armor Team in Karabilah, Iraq, when he heard Rocket Propelled Grenades and small arms fire erupting a couple of kilometers away – his Battalion Commander’s convoy had been ambushed and was under attack. Dunham and his team dismounted and headed to the fight. Before long they began receiving fire too.
They spotted a convoy of seven vehicles attempting to leave the area and stopped them. As the Marines approached the vehicles, an insurgent jumped out and attacked Corporal Dunham, grabbing him by the throat. As the two men wrestled to the ground, two Marines ran to assist him.
He was more concerned for their safety than his own. He told them, “No, No. Watch his hand.”
Then the insurgent dropped a grenade.
Dunham ripped off his Kevlar helmet and jumped on top of the grenade, using his helmet and body to mitigate the blast.
The explosion proved to be fatal. Corporal Dunham passed away a week later at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The other Marines were injured, but survived.
He received the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Every new ship follows an ancient tradition called, “Mast Stepping”, in which valuable items are placed at the base of the mast (or within it). For PCU JASON DUNHAM’s ceremony, several items were sealed inside the mast, forever becoming a part of the ship. Among them were his Purple Heart, coins representing significant dates in his life, the last letter he wrote to his parents, his dog tags, and a piece of his helmet recovered after the blast.
At the ceremony was Jason’s former Company Commander, Maj. Trent Gibson, who told the crew, “This ship represents the man who laid down his life for his fellow Marines. Remember that selfless devotion to duty as you work and live on this ship.”
Corporal Dunham, by his actions and sacrifice, gave the ship bearing his name something that no engineer could ever accomplish.
He gave it a soul.
He was born on November 10, 1981, sharing a birthday with the United States Marine Corps.