BATH, Maine (AP) — In a solemn ceremony punctuated by talk of courage, service and sacrifice, the mother of a Marine corporal on Saturday christened a warship honoring her son, who died after covering an exploding grenade to protect his comrades in Iraq.
After composing herself and taking a deep breath, Deb Dunham smashed a bottle of champagne over the bow of the 510-foot warship Jason Dunham, then held the bottle aloft to the cheers of hundreds.
She was joined by the Marines who served with her son, by her husband, Dan Dunham, and their daughter Katelyn Dunham.
Retired Gen. Michael Hagee, a former Marine commandant who was with the Dunhams when their son died at Bethesda Naval Hospital days after the explosion, said Jason gave the "gift of valor." Hagee said the warship will serve as a reminder that freedom "is paid for by the men and women who wear the cloth of this nation."
"They are willing to give up everything that is important: love, marriage, children, family, friends," Hagee said of the 22-year-old Marine. "I can tell you I've always stood in awe of that."
At the Bath Iron Works shipyard, a special place was reserved for those who served with Dunham in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Dunham's company commander, Maj. Trent Gibson, Sgt. Bill Hampton and Cpl. Kelly Miller, who were present the day Dunham died, were among them. Hampton and Miller were next to Dunham when the grenade detonated. It was them whose lives were saved because of him. They suffered burns and shrapnel wounds but recovered.
Hagee said Dunham, from Scio, N.Y., seemed destined to be a Marine: He reminded the audience that Dunham's birthday was the same as that of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Dunham served as squad commander on his first tour in Iraq, and he chose to extend his enlistment so he could serve the entire tour with his Marines. He vowed to bring his squad home alive, and was true to his word. They all came back.
Dunham won the Medal of Honor for his actions April 14, 2004, as his squad sought to engage insurgents after a convoy was ambushed.
While the squad searched vehicles, the driver of a Toyota Land Cruiser jumped out and attacked Dunham. They fell to the ground, where the fight continued.
Dunham shouted: "No, no, no! Watch his hand!" as the attacker pulled out a grenade. Dunham covered the explosive with his body and his helmet as it went off. He died eight days later.
Before the ceremony, Dunham's mother said it was fitting that the ship that would bear her son's name is a guided-missile destroyer. "It's an honor Jason would really get a kick out of," she said.