“It all started because the lawnmower ran out of gas,” said Maj. Trent A. Gibson, the executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, with a chuckle. “If the lawnmower hadn’t run out of gas, I would have never heard the phone ring.”
The voice he heard upon answering was that of a Marine recruiter, explaining what the Marine Corps had to offer the young man from Piedmont, Okla. Neither could imagine the future that Gibson would experience as he enlisted to become one of the few, the proud and the brave.
After twenty-two years as one of the few, Gibson experienced true pride in having served among the undeniably brave.
In the dangerous city of Karabilah, Iraq on April 14, 2004, Gibson, then a captain and the commander of Company K, 3rd Bn,, 7th Marines, went on patrol with his men of 2nd Squad, 4th Platoon.
WHO WAS JASON DUNHAM?
The carefully chosen squad leader for 2nd Squad was a 22-year-old corporal from the small town of Scio, N.Y., by the name of Jason Dunham.
“Cpl. Dunham was the quintessential Marine,” Gibson said. “He was the square-jawed, muscular all-American man you envision when someone says Marine. He had the character to back up his looks, too. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body.”
He earned respect from his men by example, not by intimidation, Gibson said of his leadership style.
“Cpl. Dunham was the kind of guy you would want your daughter to bring home,” he added.
During the patrol, their battalion commander’s convoy was ambushed nearby. Dunham led his Marines south of the ambushed convoy when vehicles began to flee the scene. As the Marines prepared to stop the vehicles, an Iraqi clad in black jumped from a white sport utility vehicle and attempted to choke Dunham. During the scuffle that ensued, the Iraqi dropped a hand grenade.
THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
Cpl. Dunham didn’t falter.
In his last conscious act he threw his Kevlar helmet – then himself – on the grenade, absorbing the blast and saving the lives of his fellow Marines who were nearby.
When the smoke cleared, Dunham lay unconscious on the hard dirt road. His Kevlar ripped into two major pieces and countless shreds by the explosion.
When Gibson arrived on scene, he inspected the small cache of weapons retrieved from the vehicles and noticed a piece of Dunham’s Kevlar leaning against the wall of a nearby building. Once he realized what exactly he had found, he and the Marines in the area scoured the street for any scraps of the Kevlar they could find.
Five years have passed since Dunham’s selfless sacrifice to save the lives of his fellow Marines earned him the Medal of Honor and a Navy destroyer bearing his name.
THE DECISION TO DISPLAY
For five years the pieces of Dunham’s Kevlar were stored within the 7th Marine Regiment–until Gibson began collaborating with Deb and Dan Dunham, Cpl. Dunham’s parents, on the proper way to preserve the history of the helmet.
The three of them had to decide either to donate the helmet to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., to display the helmet on the quarterdeck of the USS Jason Dunham along with his dress blue uniform, seal the entire thing in the destroyer’s mast or simply to bury it.
“At first we were a little uneasy about the notion of displaying it, due to the graphic nature of the object,” Gibson said. “But I mainly didn’t want the significance of the helmet to become lost. It isn’t just Marine Corps property; it was spiritually transformed to a part of the Marine Corps’ living history.”
Eventually they concluded the best way to ensure the legacy of the Kevlar and the history it represents was to donate most of the helmet to the museum, but to save a single shred to be forever sealed in the mast of the ship that bears Dunham’s name.
Gibson contacted Lin Ezell, the director of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and coordinated to deliver the helmet to the museum during the same weekend the ship’s Mast-Stepping ceremony was being held.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
As Gibson made his way from the Combat Center to the Marine Corps Museum, he carried with him a simple, locked black case with the combination 0-4-2 which represented Cpl. Dunham’s radio call sign of Kilo 4-2.
The case, which was never out of Gibson’s sight, attracted the attention of curious passengers throughout the trip. Gibson left each inquiring commuter with a new memory as he told them the story of what the simple black case held.
Within the first hour of arriving in Washington, D.C., July 9, Gibson made his way to the Marine Corps War Memorial and spent more than an hour sitting on the steps carefully examining the fragments of Dunham’s helmet-pieces he helped collect from the streets of Karabilah.
After ensuring all the pieces were accounted for, he changed into his desert utility uniform and drove to Marine Corps Base Quantico to pick up Sgt. Mark Dean, one of Cpl. Dunham’s close friends and an Owasso, Okla., native, and the pair made the final leg of the journey to the museum together.
As they entered, they were greeted by Ezell and Owen Conner, the uniforms curator at the museum, and escorted upstairs to complete the exchange. Once upstairs, Gibson recounted the story and shared with the small audience the importance the helmet carried with it.
Once Gibson showed what each piece was and how the puzzle fit together, Gibson and Dean deliberated on which piece of the helmet would be appropriate to bring to the USS Jason Dunham to be forever capsulated in the destroyer’s mast.
TOAST TO A HERO
After ensuring the helmet was in competent hands, the history would be displayed for generations to come, and an appropriate piece had been set aside, the group went to the museum’s “Tun Tavern” and shared a toast.
“It’s been a while,” Dean said emotionally.
“It’s been five damn years,” Gibson replied. “Five damn years.”
After their glasses were drained and their stories shared, Gibson and Dean parted ways once again with promises of reunions to come. They parted with the Kevlar that Cpl. Jason Dunham used to selflessly save his fellow Marines’ lives – but not with Dunham. He will live with them forever in spirit and history.
Story by Pfc. Michael Gams