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Posted on May 4, 2005 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Gift of Valor – A War Story – Book Review

By Brian King

The Gift of Valor: A War Story
Michael M. Phillips
Broadway Books, May 2005

Ever wonder what a soldier has to do to get the Congressional Medal of Honor? We all hear the stories of soldiers who lay down their lives so that others can be saved, but mostly we think of these in terms of World War II or Vietnam, or if you are up on current history you might recall the two snipers who fought to the death in 1993 to save a downed pilot (made famous by the book/movie Blackhawk Down). It is a sad fact of our times that with so many Allied soldiers in Iraq, the opportunity for selfless sacrifice would come about once again. Enter Jason Dunham, a 22-year old Marine Corporal who was well-liked and respected by his fellow soldiers both on and off the battlefield. Jason was deployed in far western Iraq, and mostly saw action patrolling villages along the Syrian border. During one frantic engagement with the enemy, Jason made a critical decision to smother an insurgent’s grenade with his helmet to save his fellow soldiers who were nearby, putting concern for his own life second. The result was both heroic and tragic.


This book is written in an interesting journalistic style, with constant mini-biographies given for each person Jason came in contact with during his travels, from the highest ranking officer down to the lowliest orderly in the hospital. This writing style is understandable knowing that the author (Michael M. Phillips) is a journalist who has gone on four tours with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines. He knows the Marines, and does a fine job of sharing some pretty amazing things about the Corps. While I didn’t mind the frequent disbursement of background information (a journalist is all about the facts!), it could turn off some readers who are used to a more fluid story with fewer characters. Given the relatively short length of the book, and the scores of people involved, it is an efficient means of rapidly introducing and then exiting people as Jason made his way from Battlefield back to his home. If nothing else, it makes you realize that each person has a history, a family, and a life of their own, rather than simply being "the nurse who admitted the patient" or similarly impersonal depictions of people. You begin to FEEL what those people felt as they encountered Jason…

In fact I found myself immersed into the atmosphere around this Marine and truly felt like I knew the man, his family and his friends. The first half of the book focuses on Jason’s early Marine life, his family background, and the details of his deployment. The latter half focuses on the disastrous patrol that led to Jason’s heroic deed – and perhaps more importantly the journey he took as he was rushed into the military’s medical system. I honestly thought the second half would be anti-climatic once I finished reading about the actual fighting engagement with the enemy, but I was surprised to find myself unable to put the book down once Jason was rushed from the battlefield to a makeshift medical station, to a formal hospital, and on up the chain until his eventual arrival in the States. It was fascinating to learn about the doctors, nurses, and others who worked so passionately to save this man’s life. In a mysterious way, it becomes clear that Jason’s struggle for survival affected many people, and is a great tribute to the strength of character and good nature of this soldier – and conversely it speaks volumes for those treating him. I can’t deny that by the end of this book I too was affected by Jason’s struggle – and I doubt I will ever forget this true American hero.

This book was thankfully devoid of any political statements or rhetoric which certainly would have diminished the powerful message created after finishing the entire story. This is not a soapbox intended to try to dissuade anyone from believing in what the Allied Coalition is doing in Iraq, nor is it a hoo-rah patriotic hymn singing the praises of what Allied soldiers are doing over there. Instead, it merely states the facts of what life was like for one small group of soldiers, and how saving one man’s life can suddenly become the most important battle in the world. If you have any desire to learn about the men and women of the US Marines, what their families and friends must endure every day their loved one is in the hot zone, and the medical institutions backing up Allied forces, this book will be well worth your time.