Sunday, July 5, 2015

Stories of valor and sacrifice

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Valley Forge is no stranger to heroes. The area is steeped in tales of valor and sacrifice. Look for more next weekend.

The occasion is the updating of the Medal of Honor Grove, the Freedoms Foundation’s 52-acre memorial park about a mile west of Valley Forge National Historical Park. The site pays tribute to the 3,457 men and one woman who have, according to the 1862 act that President Abraham Lincoln signed creating the medal, distinguished “themselves by their gallantry in action.”

Within each acre of the park — one per state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — is an obelisk bearing the names of medal recipients from that state. In the past, as the list of recipients grew, names were added. Unfortunately, as the foundation ran into trouble maintaining the grove, it also fell behind on the honor roll.

The last two medal recipients enshrined there were two soldiers who died defending the crew of a downed helicopter in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Since then, more than three dozen additional medals have been awarded.

Next Sunday, in ceremonies starting at noon, the names of 35 of these heroes will be officially added to the grove. There are privates and senior NCOs, petty officers and majors. They are Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors. They served in Korea (five), Vietnam (20), Afghanistan (six), and Iraq (four). They hail from 18 states.

Among those paying tribute to these men will be six of their fellow medal recipients, Marine Maj. Gen. James Livingston; Cols. Bud Day, Hal Fritz, and Joe Marm, all from the Army; Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness; and Francis Currey. All but Currey, an Army rifleman who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, served in Vietnam.

Other dignitaries will be on hand as well, but the most distinguished guests will be the family members of the honorees. As this is Mother’s Day, let me introduce you to two of them: Deb Dunham and Romayne McGinnis.

Both are from small towns. Deb and her husband, Dan, live in Scio, in western New York. Romayne and Tom McGinnis are north of Pittsburgh, in Knox, Pa. Both raised kids while holding down jobs outside the home, Deb as a home-ec teacher and Romayne at Wal-Mart. And both had sons who sacrificed their lives for others.

Jason Dunham and Ross McGinnis enlisted while still in high school. College might come later, and the military could help with that. Jason went to the Marines, eager for the physical challenge. Ross joined the Army, infantry. He loved working on cars, but didn’t want to be stuck in a garage all day.

When Ross left for training, he was a kid who’d never been on a plane before. When Romayne saw him again at graduation, she thought, “Wow, what a change.”

“He stood straighter, no slouching,” she says. “He’d become a man, so respectful.” Still her son, though. She corrected him when he called her “ma’am.”

Deb remembers talking to Jason one night after he’d made squad leader. On the phone, he was the goofy, lovable kid she knew. But then he paused to discipline two passing Marines.

“I didn’t hear my son,” Deb recalls. “I heard the man that he’d grown into. That kind of rocked me a little bit.”

On April 14, 2004, en route to support a convoy that had come under attack near Karabilah, Iraq, Jason’s platoon stopped some Iraqi vehicles to search for weapons. An insurgent leaped out of one vehicle and attacked Jason. During the struggle, a grenade was released. Jason alerted his Marines to the threat, threw his helmet on top of the grenade, and then himself on top of the helmet.

His Medal of Honor citation reads, “In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines.”

Jason died eight days later at Bethesda Naval Hospital, his parents at his bedside.

On Dec. 4, 2006, Ross was a .50-caliber machine gunner in the midst of the sectarian violence plaguing Baghdad. A fragmentation grenade was thrown past him into the hatch of his vehicle. He yelled, “Grenade!” and could have then leaped to safety. Instead, he slid down, putting himself between the grenade and the men inside. He was killed instantly.

“Private McGinnis’ gallant action directly saved four men from certain serious injury or death,” his medal citation reads.

When Romayne McGinnis speaks to groups about Ross, she’ll mention that he was a kid who, like other teens, occasionally got into trouble. But don’t assume too much from that, she advises.

“Don’t judge them,” she says. “They’re learning, they’re growing. You just don’t know how their lives will turn out, what decisions they will be asked to make.”

Deb Dunham has a similar lesson in talks that she gives: “We all should do the right thing. We should do the best we can to do our part. Jason taught me that.”

These are just two of 35 stories to be honored next weekend. And they’ll be retold not to glorify one person at the expense of another, but as reminders of the daily acts of valor and sacrifice that go unnoticed, and for which we can never properly offer our thanks.

Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.

Inquirer Columnist
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