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.
In boot camp, a Marine is taught that he isn't really fighting for a country or an idea; he is fighting for the Marine to the left of him and the Marine to the right of him. Jason's concern for the men beside him, and their eagerness to follow his lead, caught the attention of his seniors in Kilo Company. At the end of 2003, Captain Gibson reorganized the company into four rifle platoons to make it more nimble for occupation and guerrilla warfare, rather than invasion. The captain held a National Football League-style draft to allow the platoon commanders to pick their men.
Staff Sergeant Ferguson, standing in as Fourth Platoon's commander before Lieutenant Robinson's arrival, spent a weekend rating 160 Kilo Company grunts. His top picks were Corporal Travis Struecker to lead First Squad and Corporal Dunham to lead Second Squad. Dunham didn't have combat experience, but Ferguson liked the way he treated his Marines. Dunham was close enough to his men, for instance, to know if a lance corporal didn't have his mind on his work because of girlfriend trouble. Ferguson was impressed that Jason could get men to follow him without yelling, without intimidation. Nobody doubted Corporal Dunham was in charge, and Dunham felt no need to remind anyone. In Ferguson's view, Dunham inspired performance just by being himself.
Jason's charisma and looks proved a painful contrast for his younger brother Justin, a talented artist but less endowed with natural prowess when it came to romance and sports. Justin was born with a cleft lip and palate, and the girls seemed to go out of their way to tell Justin how attractive they found his brother, while the boys praised Jason's athletic skill. During Jason's senior year, he and Justin rode together on a bus back to Scio from an away basketball game. Justin had spent much of the game on the bench, while Jason starred as usual. The other players teased Justin about his failures and Jason's successes. When the boys were alone, Justin complained bitterly that he was tired of living in Jason's shadow. "Don't worry about what other people think," Jason told him. "Just do what you do. The only person you have to impress is yourself."
Third Battalion said good-bye to Corporal Dunham on April 28. The Marines gathered in the parking lot outside the command post at al Qa'im, a former office building of the Iraqi railroad company. Staff Sergeant Ferguson called roll for Fourth Platoon, each Marine responding to his name by saving, "Present." When the staff sergeant called, "Corporal Dunham," there was silence. Lance Corporal Castaneda, one of Dunham's point men, stepped forward and plunged a rifle bayonet first into a sandbag. Staff Sergeant Ferguson called the name again, "Corporal Jason L. Dunham," and Polston, the boot, placed a pair of desert-tan boots in front of the rifle. "Corporal Jason L. Dunham," Ferguson called a final time. Lance Corporal Gummi Bear Covarrubias placed a Kevlar helmet on the rifle butt. Taps played over the loudspeaker.
Lance Corporal Mark Dean told the assembled troops a story about the trip that he, Becky Jo, and Corporal Dunham took to Las Vegas shortly before they shipped out for the war. Sitting in the hotel room, Corporal Dunham told the Deans he was considering extending his enlistment so that he could stay in Iraq through the battalion's entire tour, instead of going home early.
"You're crazy for extending," Lance Corporal Dean said. "Why?"
"I want to make sure everyone makes it home alive," Jason said.