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The Lost Heroes of the War on Terror

Despite taking place in an age of seemingly limitless information, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has spawned a paucity of stories of heroic action and courage under fire. Regardless of whether this has been the result of honest, if unfortunate, oversight or a byproduct of the “if it bleeds, it leads” mindset of a sensationalist 24-hour media apparatus, the fact remains that there are no grand tales being told of modern Audie Murphys, Jimmy Doolittles, Pappy Boyingtons, Bill Pitsenbargers, or Bud Days, despite the fact that the nation — and a significant amount of its soldiers — is at war.

This is not a new phenomenon; even the most recent pre-GWOT recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor — Army sergeants Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, who were killed in Mogadishu in 1993 — are hardly household names. However, the high-profile nature of the War on Terror should mean that more such tales reach the living rooms of Americans who are hungry for more than the ordinary doom-and-gloom.

This lack of reported stories of heroism on the part of America’s fighting men and women is not due to a lack of media access to the military. On the contrary, Operation Iraqi Freedom has begun a new era of access for journalists with the advent of the Department of Defense’s media-embed program. Nor has the lack of relevant reportage been due to a deficiency in individual gallantry displayed by our soldiers on the field of battle; there have been numerous cases of exceptional courage under fire to this point in the War on Terror, and there will doubtless be many more before this conflict has drawn to a close.

Every man and woman fighting for America deserves respect and acknowledgment. There are some, though, who go above and beyond even the bravery and valor shown by the “average” soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who puts his or her life on the line, day in and day out, in defense of America and in pursuit of the nation’s goals. Here is a selection of four exceptional warriors — one from each branch of service — whose names and deeds every American should know. Each of these men is a true hero in every sense of the word, having fought in defense of America and having made the ultimate sacrifice for his mission and for his fellow men.

Michael Monsoor, United States Navy

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. He was pulled in a different direction from his family members, though — he was drawn to the U.S. 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 excelled at BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training and was assigned to SEAL Team Three, based at Coronado, California. In Iraq, as he fought alongside his teammates, he repeatedly demonstrated the bravery and heroism characteristic of America’s fighting men and women, and it was in Iraq, on September 29, 2006, that the 25-year-old hero gave his life to protect them.

A recipient of the Bronze Star Medal for his earlier actions in the War on Terror, Monsoor was awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest medal conferred upon members of the United States military, for his valor and selflessness while engaged in a firefight in Ramadi in May, when, according to the report, “he and another SEAL pulled a team member shot in the leg to safety while bullets pinged off the ground around them.” Only a few weeks later, Monsoor’s willingness to risk his life for his teammates was demonstrated to the utmost, as he made the ultimate sacrifice to save the lives of the men around him.

According to the Navy’s official 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.

It is necessary to understand, in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of Monsoor's sacrifice, that, 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.

Said Monsoor’s mother later, “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 Associated Press, “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 away 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.

As was so eloquently and succinctly put by the Chicago Tribune’s Kristen Scharnberg shortly after the incident, in an article titled “Medals of Honor largely MIA among heroics of Iraq war”:

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.

The decision was made in less than an instant, and those whose lives would have ended that day but for Monsoor’s action will carry a weighty gratitude for as long as they live. Three months after making the ultimate sacrifice, Mike Monsoor was nominated for a posthumous Medal of Honor, and, if there is any justice in this world, that request will be approved as quickly as possible.

Jason Dunham, United States Marine Corps

Jason Dunham, of Scio, New York, shared a birthday (the day before Veteran’s Day) with the United States Marine Corps. A Corporal in the Corps, he was killed in Iraq in 2004, at the age of 23. Had Dunham not given his life for his comrades three years ago, he would have turned 25 last fall on the day that the USMC, which has been fortunate beyond measure to have contained men of Dunham’s quality for over two centuries, turned 231.

Dunham’s death in Iraq is not in itself what makes his a story of heroism; it is his final actions, stunning in their selflessness, which deserve to be known and remembered. According to the official report:

On April 14, 2004, Corporal Dunham heroically saved the lives of two of his fellow Marines by jumping on a grenade during an ambush in the town of Karabilah.

When a nearby Marine convoy was ambushed, Corporal Dunham led his squad to the site of the attack, where he and his men stopped a convoy of cars trying to make an escape. As he moved to search one of the vehicles, an insurgent jumped out and grabbed the corporal by the throat.

The corporal engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. At one point, he shouted to his fellow Marines, “No! No! No! Watch his hand!”

Moments later, an enemy grenade rolled out and Corporal Dunham jumped on the grenade to protect his fellow Marines, using his helmet and body to absorb the blast. Corporal Dunham succumbed to his wounds on April 22, 2004.

At the time of the battle in question, Lance Corporal Mark Edward Dean, a close friend of Dunham’s,

didn’t recognize the wounded Marine being loaded into the back of his Humvee. Blood from shrapnel wounds in the Marine's head and neck had covered his face. Then Lance Cpl. Dean spotted the tattoo on his chest – an Ace of Spades and a skull – and realized he was looking at one of his closest friends, Cpl. Dunham. A volunteer firefighter back home in Owasso, Okla., Lance Cpl. Dean says he knew from his experience with car wrecks that his friend had a better chance of surviving if he stayed calm.

“You’re going to be all right,” Lance Cpl. Dean recalled saying to Dunham as the Humvee raced against the inevitability of time and mortal wounds on a doomed quest to save the life of a brave Marine whose selfless act had just saved the lives of his comrades.

“We’re going to get you home.”

The situation was eerily familiar to Dean, who recalled Dunham’s words to him and their comrades while on a trip to Las Vegas shortly before leaving the U.S. for Iraq. Dunham told them that he was planning to extend his enlistment and stay in Iraq for the battalion’s entire tour. “You’re crazy for extending,” Lance Cpl. Dean said. “Why?”

Cpl. Dunham responded: “I want to make sure everyone makes it home alive. I want to be sure you go home to your wife alive.”

And he did just that.

Even though it counts not at all as a sufficient repayment to Corporal Dunham and to his family, it was nevertheless fitting and necessary that his parents were presented a posthumously-awarded Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, in Corporal Dunham’s name, by President Bush in a January 11 ceremony at the White House.

The Medal, established by Joint Resolution of Congress, can be awarded to an Armed Forces member who “distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force.” The incredible bravery, love, and selflessness displayed that day showed that Corporal Jason Dunham fully embodied these principles and requirements, and he was as deserving of the Medal of Honor as any soldier has ever been.

Ross McGinnis, United States Army

When most young men are turning 17, they are thinking about their upcoming senior year of high school, their sports career, or their choice of college. When Ross McGinnis, of Knox, Pennsylvania, turned 17, he marched down to the recruiter’s office and joined the Army via the delayed enlistment program.

When in kindergarten, said Rebecca McGinnis, her son “drew a soldier...when he was supposed to picture what he wanted to be when he grew up.” At the age of 18, the ambidextrous McGinnis was in training to be an infantryman, where he qualified as a sharpshooter with both his left and right hands. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, based in Schweinfurt, Germany, where he was the youngest soldier in the unit.

In August of last year, he found himself in Iraq, patrolling the streets of Baghdad. In November, immediately following the verdict in the Saddam trial, he helped forcefully put down a premeditated violent uprising by insurgents.

McGinnis distinguished himself so greatly in his first three months in Iraq that a waiver was requested — and granted — to promote him to Specialist (E-4) despite his lacking the requisite time in service.

On December 4, 2006, at the age of 19, Ross McGinnis traded his life for the lives of four members of his squad when he jumped on a grenade and shielded them from the blast.

On the last day of his life, PFC McGinnis was manning the .50-caliber machine gun mounted in a turret atop his Humvee and serving as the rear guard in a mounted combat patrol against insurgents and sectarian fighters. As the convoy made a turn onto a narrow street, a fragmentation grenade was thrown from the rooftop of an adjacent building. According to the official report,

[McGinnis] immediately yelled “Grenade!” on the vehicle’s intercom system to alert the four other members of his crew...[he] made an attempt to personally deflect the grenade, but was unable to prevent it from falling through the gunner's hatch.

For his subsequent actions, McGinnis was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for combat heroism (specifically, for “gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States”).

According to platoon sergeant Cedric Thomas, who was commanding the vehicle, “McGinnis yelled ‘Grenade...It’s in the truck!’...I looked out of the corner of my eye as I was crouching down and I saw him pin it down.”

“He had time to jump out of the truck. He chose not to.”

According to a later report, “Thomas remembered McGinnis talking about how he would respond in such a situation. McGinnis said then he didn’t know how he would act, but when the time came, he delivered.”

“He gave his life to save his crew,” Thomas said. “He’s a hero. He’s a professional. He was just an awesome guy.”

McGinnis’s Silver Star citation recounts the events in greater detail:

His Platoon Sergeant, the truck commander, was unaware that the grenade physically entered the vehicle and shouted "where?" to PFC McGinnis. When an average man would have leapt out of the gunner's cupola to safety, PFC McGinnis decided to stay with his crew. Unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his own life he announced "the grenade is in the truck" and threw his back over the grenade to pin it between his body and the truck's radio mount.

When the grenade detonated, PFC McGinnis absorbed all lethal fragments and the concussion with his own body killing him instantly. His early warning allowed all four members of his crew to position their bodies in a protective posture to prepare for the grenade's blast. As a result of his quick reflexes and heroic measures, no other members of the vehicle crew were seriously wounded in the attack. His gallant action and total disregard for his personal well-being directly saved four men from certain serious injury or death.

It is beyond the power of words to fully express the tremendous sacrifice involved in such a brave, heroic act. At the age of 19, the youngest man in his Company, Ross McGinnis willingly forfeited his own life, his own desires, and his own future so that his comrades — those with whom he had been facing enemy fire — could have them.

“He was that kind of person,” said Michael Blair, a fellow 1-26 infantryman. “He would rather take it himself than have his buddies go down.”

When Tom and Rebecca McGinnis think of their son Ross, they will experience not only the sorrow that only a parent can know, but also the pride of knowing that their son gave his life for his friends. This may be small comfort to a grieving parent, but not because the selfless act was anything less than an instance of the greatest heroism.

PFC Ross McGinnis has been submitted for a Medal of Honor of his own. We can only hope that the earthly memory of his final act is justly served, and that his nomination is quickly approved.

Ross’s posthumous Silver Star was presented to his parents at a memorial service, held with full military honors, on December 17 in Knox, Pennsylvania. His final resting place will be Arlington National Cemetery, where he will no doubt be welcomed with open arms by those fallen heroes who already await him there.

Jason Cunningham, United States Air Force

Jason Cunningham of Carlsbad, New Mexico, joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 19, but he didn’t stay long. After just under four years in the fleet, Cunningham decided on a radical career change, setting his sights on joining an elite Air Force fraternity known as Pararescuemen. The USAF has fewer than 1,000 of these medical professionals whose job is to deploy by any means necessary — sea, air, or land — to rescue downed aircrew members and injured special operators.

Cunningham succeeded in his goal of becoming a PJ and was assigned to the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody AFB, Georgia. Only eight months later, he deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The PJs there were based in an air operations building that also housed a forward surgical team — a training opportunity which he took advantage of almost immediately.

“Every time we had a casualty event [Cunningham] was always the first one here offering to help,” said Dr. (Maj.) Brian Burlingame, the surgical unit's commander. “His enthusiasm was just genuine to the core, which was what endeared him to us. He was like a little brother.”

“He had more motivation than any one man should have,” said a Pararescue colleague. “He was all about saving people’s lives.”

Besides honing his personal medical skills, Cunningham’s involvement with the surgeons down the hall at Bagram directly resulted in a development that would save the lives of American soldiers in the very near future: the allowing of PJs to carry whole blood into combat as a part of their medical loadout. This was a controversial step, Dr. Burlingame told the Air Force Times:

"Blood is an FDA-controlled substance. It's very, very regulated." Special training, not to mention lots of paperwork, is required before medics are considered qualified to administer blood in the field. After Cunningham and Burlingame started talking, all the pararescuers here took the classes and filled out the paperwork.

"We then pushed blood forward with [Cunningham's] group," Burlingame said.

Perhaps the most famous battle of Operation Enduring Freedom, the battle of “Roberts Ridge” (a subset of Operation Anaconda, which saw a loss of life unprecedented in the special operations community since Mogadishu in 1993), was Cunningham’s first — and last — taste of combat. At the battle, Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter, which took heavy fire while attempting to insert a SEAL team onto a hilltop to watch over the Anaconda battlefield. A second helicopter had deposited the remainder of Roberts’s squad and an Air Force combat controller (Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, whose actions during the battle cost him his life, and earned him a posthumous Air Force Cross) on the hilltop in an attempt to rescue the fallen sailor, whom Predator UAV footage had shown being captured by Taliban fighters.

A quick reaction force (QRF) composed mainly of a squad of Army Rangers was launched to reinforce the outmanned and outgunned Americans who had quickly become pinned down in an exposed position. As it approached the landing zone, the QRF helicopter came under such significant ground fire that it was forced to make a crash landing in an exposed area of the hilltop, only 100 meters from a fortified enemy position. The soldiers on board immediately took fire, and casualties began to mount instantly.

Cunningham worked feverishly to treat the wounded Rangers and aviators, doing so in the back of the downed Chinook helicopter until it caught fire and became the target of increasingly accurate enemy mortar fire. Making the decision to move his patients, Cunningham crossed the line of fire seven separate times while successfully transporting them to higher ground. He then was forced to move them twice more to avoid the enemy fire raining down on their static, vulnerable casualty collection-points.

Finally, just after midnight, after having so successfully defied enemy fire so as to move and treat his patients, Cunningham’s luck ran out, and he was shot in the abdomen just below his protective vest. According to the Air Force Times,

Cunningham must have known he was in serious trouble. But despite his worsening condition, he continued to treat patients and advise others on how to care for the critically wounded. One of the two blood packs he had brought [and which he was directly responsible for PJs being able to carry] saved a badly wounded Ranger. The medics gave the other packet to Cunningham himself, whose life was slowly flowing out in a red stream onto the white snow.

Nearly 20 hours after suffering serious internal injuries, and not long before the area became cold enough for rescue helicopters to arrive and evacuate the wounded fighters, Cunningham succumbed to his wounds. He treated patients to the end, and was credited afterward with having almost single-handedly made sure that only seven men died, rather than seventeen. Such dedication and seriousness of purpose ended up costing him his own life.

Every wounded man he treated survived the encounter, and for his extraordinary heroism and gallant action in living the Pararescue motto (“That Others May Live”), he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest award that the USAF offers. According to the citation, “As a result of [Cunningham’s] extraordinary heroism, his team returned 10 seriously wounded personnel to life-saving medical care.”

“He was right in the thick of it, doing it right up to the end,” said a fellow Pararescueman. “Jason was right where every PJ wants to be. He was where guys needed him, and he was saving lives.”

No Greater Love…

These four men exemplify a mindset that is both incomprehensible and unimaginable to all who have not been in such a situation. When faced with a life or death situation, with an escape route both simple and available, every one of them chose death, against every instinct of self-preservation. And, in doing so, they allowed the men with them, marked for death, to keep their lives.

There truly can be no greater love, no more heroic acts, than such as these. The men whose lives were saved by the direct intervention of Mike Monsoor, Jason Dunham, Ross McGinnis, Jason Cunningham, and others will carry the burden of gratitude with them to the grave, and beyond.

The mindset that compels a man to put himself into harm’s way for the purpose of saving another is impossible to express; 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 and having each of theirs in his.

As put by Dr. Joseph Blake, a sociologist who has researched the act of soldiers throwing themselves on grenades and other acts of sacrifice in the line of fire, “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.”

Yet these heroes, and all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have died in combat, have done so also, if indirectly, for the sake of all Americans. To these men and women, every American owes eternal gratitude and a commitment never to take for granted those things that we, due to their sacrifices, can continue to enjoy — things that they, due to those same sacrifices, will never again be able to.

As Memorial Day nears, take a moment to thank a friend, family member, or even a total stranger who has served — or is serving — this country. For although they will never seek the praise and thanks of their fellow man, all will appreciate the expression of gratitude. It is our solemn duty to honor those who have kept us safe and free for the past 230-plus years. America has stood strong all this time largely because of men like these. And it is because of men like them that it shall remain so.

The sacrifices of these true warriors, like those of the countless others whose stories have not yet been told to a public, did not make them heroes. It simply demonstrated what heroes they were all along.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a leadership fellow with the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security.

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