Michael Monsoor, of Garden Grove, California, felt the same call to serve his country that had led his father and brother into the Marine Corps. However, he was pulled in a different direction than his family members: he was drawn to the US Navy, not out of a desire to serve in the fleet, but out of a burning ambition to serve as a Navy SEAL, one of America's Special Operations elites.
Monsoor succeeded at SEAL training, and was assigned to Coronado, CA. It was in Iraq, though, as he fought alongside his teammates, that he repeatedly demonstrated the bravery and heroism which are characteristic of America's fighting men and women, and it was in that same country, on September 29, 2006, that the 25-year-old gave his life to protect them.
According to the Navy's narrative:
On 29 September, Monsoor was part of a sniper overwatch security position in eastern Ramadi, Iraq, with three other SEALs and eight Iraqi soldiers. …Ramadi had been a violent and intense area for a very strong and aggressive insurgency for some time.
An insurgency fighter…threw a fragment grenade into the overwatch position which hit Monsoor in the chest before falling in front of him. Monsoor yelled "Grenade!" and dropped on top of the grenade prior to it exploding. Monsoor's body shielded the others from the brunt of the fragmentation blast and two other SEALs were only wounded by the remaining blast.
The most important part of the incident to understand, in order to appreciate the magnitude of Monsoor's sacrifice, is this: due to the orientation of the room, and the location of its lone exit, he was the only person who could have escaped. Doing so, though, would have meant abandoning the others in the room to grievous injury or, more likely, to death. Knowing both courses of action, and the consequences of each, he had to make a split-second decision.
As was so eloquently and succinctly put by the Chicago Tribune’s Kristen Scharnberg, “The men who were there that day say they could see the options flicker across Michael Monsoor's face: save himself or save the men he had long considered brothers.
“He chose them.”
In April of 2004, 24-year-old Marine Corporal Jason Dunham made a similar sacrifice, as he used his body to shield fellow Marines from an exploding grenade. His father described his son’s decision to give his life for his comrades thus: “When you are in a war situation, that guy beside you is your brother or sister. And I think that most of us would give up our lives for our family.”
Over two years later, Dunham was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless, heroic sacrifice. Now, three months after he gave his life for his teammates, Monsoor has been nominated for a Medal of Honor of his own.
Most recently, 19-year-old PFC Ross McGinnis saved the lives of four of his comrades in similar fashion. On December 4, when manning a turret-mounted machine gun, a grenade was thrown into McGinnis’s Humvee. Rather than escape through the vehicle’s turret, he threw himself into the truck and on top of the grenade, absorbing the blast.
“He was that kind of person,” a fellow infantryman said of McGinnis. “He would rather take it himself than have his buddies go down.” McGinnis was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, and has also been submitted for the Medal of Honor.
The mindset that compels a man to put himself into harm’s way for the purpose of saving another is difficult to describe; however, it is a defining characteristic of the true warrior who has faced combat, and who has experienced the reality of having his life entirely in the hands of the men next to him, while having each of those in his own hands.
According to Joseph Blake, a sociologist who has researched the act of soldiers throwing themselves on grenades, “A combat situation has not a whole lot to do with patriotism or the folks back home...They are fighting for their buddies. They don't want to let their buddies down.”
Said Monsoor's mother, “We just knew that if Mike was put in a situation like he was, he wouldn't hesitate.”
And he didn’t. According to the AP, “One SEAL lieutenant…watched Monsoor shield him and others from exploding hot metal …when the grenade blew up their sniper position. ‘Mikey had the best chance of avoiding harm altogether,’ said the officer. ‘But he never took his eye off the grenade’.”
A mere two weeks from redeploying home from Iraq himself, Monsoor gave up his life so that the men around him would have a chance to return to their families.
This holiday season, as we enjoy ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives, we should pause for a moment to reflect upon the sacrifices of men like these, who willingly gave up their lives and their futures – the ability to see their families again, to spend time with their loved ones, to ever have families of their own – so that each man with them might have the chance to do so.
There truly can be no greater love, no more heroic act, than this. The men whose lives were saved by the direct intervention of Mike Monsoor, Jason Dunham, Ross McGinnis, and others will carry the burden of gratitude with them to the grave, and beyond.
However, the scope of these men's sacrifices is far greater than the relatively small number of people who were spared by their action. Every one of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who has died in combat has done so to save each of us; the bullets they have taken, and the grenades they have thrown themselves upon, have been aimed, indirectly, at every one of us, and those who have felt their impact, and have given their lives in battle, have done so that we may live.
So, to these men and women, we owe – at the very least – our eternal gratitude, and an undying commitment to never take for granted those things which we, due to their sacrifices, can continue to enjoy, but which they, due to those same sacrifices, will never again be able to do.
The sacrifices of these true warriors did not make them heroes. It simply demonstrated what heroic men they were all along.