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Marine Receives Posthumous Medal of Honor

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Before heading to Fort Benning, the president presided over a somber ceremony in the East Room at the White House. There he presented the Medal of Honor to the parents of Corporeal Jason Dunham a Marine who while serving in Iraq dove and covered a live grenade with his Kevlar helmet.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: With this medal we pay tribute to the courage and leadership of a man who represents the best of young Americans. With this medal we ask the god who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to wrap his arms around the family of Corporeal Jason Dunham, a Marine who is not here today because he lived that commandment to the fullest.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As you can tell, Corporeal Dunham died from the wounds he suffered when the grenade exploded. His actions, however, helped save at least two fellow Marines. After the ceremony today, Michele spoke with Deb and Dan Dunham, Corporeal Dunham's parents. They sat down at the Marine barracks here in Washington, D.C.

The Dunham's, who live in the small town of Sherrill in upstate New York, said their thoughts were with Jason when the president handed them the medal, a bronze star hanging from a sky blue ribbon.

Mr. DAN DUNHAM (Father): It brings back a lot of memories. It brings back the moment of his death, quite frankly. And it also brings back his childhood and his good times. And mostly I'm proud of him, that day he did the right thing and he looked out for others.

NORRIS: You know, Mr. Dunham, you said you thought of him as a younger man and his act of - his instinctive act of heroism is so incredible when you think about it. Instinctively snatching his helmet off his head and putting it over a live grenade. Where do you think that kind of instinct came from?

Mr. DUNHAM: Well, I've been a different believer in that it was instinct. I believe he thought about what he did. He only had a few seconds, but I believe he thought that it was him or his men, and we know the choice he made. And it was - I'm glad that my kids put other lives in front of their own. I think all people should be that way.

NORRIS: Can you tell us a little bit about him?

Mr. DUNHAM: I can you a lot about him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEB DUNHAM (Mother): He had a grin that just went on forever and his eyes twinkled. And he had a practical sense of humor that - he was always playing jokes. I mean whether it was turning everything on in the car after he used it and I'd get in and the wipers were going, the radio's blaring, wrong station, and seat's adjusted and the mirrors are all funky, or to taking his siblings when he came home on leave for a meal and playing jokes with them. And it just - he had a heart that was so big and so warm.

NORRIS: The timing of this ceremony is interesting, because it follows the president's address to the nation last night. Did you watch or listen to the address?

Ms. DUNHAM: No. We spent the time last night with men that Jason served with. It's a family time. It's some fond memories. It's tears. It's healing. It's the gift of love and family. And that's where we spent our time.

NORRIS: You, I'm sure, are aware that the president is calling for sending more troops to Iraq. What do you think of that plan? Is that the right strategy?

Mr. DUNHAM: We mostly - we won't talk about politics or war. Today's not about that. It's just not an area that we go near. I don't know enough about it. It would be foolish for me to make an opinion. And I think I speak for you too.

Ms. DUNHAM: This time you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Because of this honor, do you feel in some way that you can speak for other families who've also lost loved ones and perhaps use the spotlight, as it were?

Mr. DUNHAM: The only thing I would say for other families is to be strong. You're asking a personal question.

Ms. DUNHAM: Grief is personal and you can't say what's right for you is wrong from somebody else and that everybody has to do it their own way. If you're not experiencing it, you just need to be compassionate to the person who's going through it. Because it may seem bizarre, but it's right. It's right for them, and it's what they need to do at that moment.

If you haven't lost somebody and you know somebody who has, you know, give them a hug, make a phone call, and not at the times when you think. You know, because when you first lose somebody, everybody's there. They're there with the cards and the phone calls and stuff. But it's two months down the line and you're by yourself. That's what people need to do to help and to remember.

NORRIS: Deb, Dan Dunham, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DUNHAM: Thank you.

Ms. DUNHAM: Thank you.

NORRIS: Deb and Dan Dunham. Their son, Jason L. Dunham, was awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony this morning.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: And at npr.org you can hear an interview with Michael Phillips, author of "The Gift of Valor," the book that chronicles Corporeal Dunham's bravery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.