Today we honor those men and women who went into our nation’s service and never returned. It originally began as Decoration Day shortly after the Civil War. Its specific origins have been disputed; some say it started in Waterloo, New York, while others credit freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina. Both traditions combined into a national day of remembrance within a generation, but oddly did not become a federal holiday until almost a century later. In 1968, Congress finally recognized Memorial Day as a federal holiday in its present form as the last Monday in May.
In preparing a tribute to those fallen in war, I researched recipients of the Medal of Honor. Many already know the stories of heroes from campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan such as Paul Smith, Michael Mansoor, and Michael Murphy. I’d like to share the citation for Corporal Jason L Dunham, USMC, from the Iraq War:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Rifle Squad Leader, 4th Platoon, Company K, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (Reinforced), Regimental Combat Team 7, First Marine Division (Reinforced), on 14 April 2004. Corporal Dunham’s squad was conducting a reconnaissance mission in the town of Karabilah, Iraq, when they heard rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire erupt approximately two kilometers to the west. Corporal Dunham led his Combined Anti-Armor Team towards the engagement to provide fire support to their Battalion Commander’s convoy, which had been ambushed as it was traveling to Camp Husaybah.
As Corporal Dunham and his Marines advanced, they quickly began to receive enemy fire. Corporal Dunham ordered his squad to dismount their vehicles and led one of his fire teams on foot several blocks south of the ambushed convoy. Discovering seven Iraqi vehicles in a column attempting to depart, Corporal Dunham and his team stopped the vehicles to search them for weapons. As they approached the vehicles, an insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines.
By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Corporal Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
Not every MOH recipient gave his life in wartime. Danger and death come during peacetime for those who serve their country, too. In 1938, Lt. Carlton Barmore Hutchins gave his life for his flight crew during a training mission:
Rank and organization: Lieutenant, U.S. Navy. Place and date: Off California Coast, 2 February 1938. Born: 12 September 1904, Albany, N.Y. Accredited to: New York. Citation: For extraordinary heroism as the pilot of the U.S. Navy Seaplane PBY-2 No. 0463 (11-P-3) while engaged in tactical exercises with the U.S. Fleet on 2 February 1938. Although his plane was badly damaged, Lt. Hutchins remained at the controls endeavoring to bring the damaged plane to a safe landing and to afford an opportunity for his crew to escape by parachutes. His cool, calculated conduct contributed principally to the saving of the lives of all who survived. His conduct on this occasion was above and beyond the call of duty.
George Robert Cholister and Henry Clay Drexler gave their lives to save their comrades on the USS Trenton on 20 October 1924:
Rank and organization: Boatswain’s Mate First Class, U.S. Navy. Born: 18 December 1898, Camden, N.J. Accredited to: New Jersey. (Awarded by Special Act of Congress 3 February 1933.) Citation: For extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession on the occasion of a fire on board the U S.S. Trenton. At 3:35 on the afternoon of 20 October 1924, while the Trenton was preparing to fire trial installation shots from the two 6-inch guns in the forward twin mount of that vessel, 2 charges of powder ignited. Twenty men were trapped in the twin mount. Four died almost immediately and 10 later from burns and inhalation of flames and gases. The 6 others were severely injured. Cholister, without thought of his own safety, on seeing that the charge of powder from the left gun was ignited, jumped for the right charge and endeavored to put it in the immersion tank. The left charge burst into flame and ignited the right charge before Cholister could accomplish his purpose. He fell unconscious while making a supreme effort to save his shipmates and died the following day.
Rank and organization: Ensign, U.S. Navy. Born: 7 August 1901, Braddock, Pa. Accredited to: Pennsylvania. (Awarded by Special Act of Congress, 3 February 1933.) Other Navy award: Navy Cross. Citation: For extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession on the occasion of a fire on board the U.S.S. Trenton. At 3:35 on the afternoon of 20 October 1924, while the Trenton was preparing to fire trial installation shots from the two 6-inch guns in the forward twin mount of that vessel, 2 charges of powder ignited. Twenty men were trapped in the twin mount. Four died almost immediately and 10 later from burns and inhalation of flame and gases. The 6 others were severely injured. Ens. Drexler, without thought of his own safety, on seeing that the charge of powder for the left gun was ignited, jumped for the right charge and endeavored to put it in the immersion tank. The left charge burst into flame and ignited the right charge before Ens. Drexler could accomplish his purpose. He met his death while making a supreme effort to save his shipmates.
You can read more about the men and women who received our nation’s highest honor for their sacrifice at the US Army’s MOH archive. Keep all of them, and all who have given their lives in war and peace to protect this nation, in your prayers and thoughts today.