Adapted from "The Gift of Valor: A War Story" by Michael Phillips. Used with permission from Random House.

Corporal Jason Dunham didn't play head games.

Life for the new Marines, the young guys still in shock from boot camp, was already tough enough, and Dunham didn't see the point of making them even more miserable just for kicks. But Jason's was a minority view, and it was a time-honored practice in the Marine Corps for senior enlisted men to mess with the minds of the boots, as the new guys were called.

Dunham's humane leadership won him the undying loyalty of the boots in his squad. Pfc. Kelly Miller was especially impressed when, in early March, Kilo Company's Fourth Platoon was sent to help Lima Company at its base in Husaybah. Camp Husaybah sat hard against no-man's-land, a fifty-yardwide strip of sand, rubble, and garbage separating Syria from Iraq and claimed by both. The disputed zone was edged by tall fences and wire. Shopping bags of black, blue, and white plastic snagged on the barbs and flapped in the desert breeze like socks on a laundry line. The crossing point was a narrow road blocked on the Syrian side by a red-and-white metal gate. Anyone who bypassed the checkpoints and tried to sneak across no-man's-land risked being shot by Syrian border police on one side or Marine camp guards on the other. The war was supposed to be in Iraq, but sometimes it leaked across no-man's-land.

Dunham's squad was assigned the task of fortifying the sprawling camp against mortars and car bombs by filling sandbags and setting up giant, cardboard-lined metal baskets called Hesco barriers. The engineers used construction machinery to fill the baskets with sand to form a thick blast wall, as much as twice a man's height, and the grunts topped them with coils of razor wire. As a squad leader, Corporal Dunham could have ducked much of the heavy labor. Instead, he worked alongside his men for a hot, hard week, and his men gratefully took notice.

He had trained as a machine gunner in infantry school, and he knew that leading a squad of riflemen was a different craft. A textbook Marine attack involved jets, helicopters, and artillery hitting a target from a distance, followed by mortarmen, machine gunners, and riflemen in an increasingly personal fight that ended with a charge into the enemy trenches. "For you guys who were here last year, good on you," Dunham told his men. "But I'm going to do my best to do the right thing and get us back home. If you see me slipping, let me know." He kept dozens of spare batteries in his pack to make sure all his Marines had enough for their night-vision goggles, and he diligently jotted down tips in a green, clothbound notebook he carried with him:

Enemy will withdraw unless 1st attack a success.
Don't sep. females from family.
Stay away from kangaroo rats.

Dunham learned his new job quickly and quickly earned the trust of the veterans around him. In December 2003, Kilo Company spent ten days in the barren expanses of Twentynine Palms training to deal with the elusive guerrillas and angry civilians they'd likely find in the Sunni Muslim areas of western Iraq.

The days were warm, and the nights bone-chillingly cold. One day after dusk, Sergeant Mike Adams discovered that his cold-weather gear had been left on a truck, and the truck was long gone. The Marines were issued double sleeping bags that fit one into the other like Russian dolls. Together they were toasty. But separately they weren't quite enough for a night in which temperatures dropped below freezing. Dunham gave Adams one of his bags and his camouflaged poncho liner.

They both woke up unable to feel their feet.

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