November 14th, 2010
BY LAURA FIGUEROA
Deb Dunham lost a son, but along the way she gained a second family — 300 men and women who carry on her son’s legacy.
“Rest assured when you sail, you sail with a guardian angel,” she told the crew of the USS Jason Dunham, a 9,000-ton warship that bears her Marine corporal son’s name.
Dunham died in Iraq six years ago at age 22 when he threw his body and helmet over an Iraqi insurgent’s hand grenade.
So Saturday, some 5,000 spectators gathered at Port Everglades and paid homage to that sacrifice as the U.S. Navy commissioned its newest battleship in Dunham’s name. They included Dunham’s mom and dad, from upstate New York, and a who’s who list of military and political dignitaries for what amounted to the ship’s coming-out party.
“Man this ship and bring her to life,” Dunham shouted from the deck, following a time-honored tradition that signaled the destroyer was ready to sail to war.
The spectators cheered.
The ceremony recounted the fallen marine’s valor, tales that moved silver-haired veterans and decorated officers in the crowd to tears.
“It’s hard to find real heroes these days,” said Vietnam veteran Richard Homan, now active with the Pembroke Pines American Legion.
“It really is an honor to be here. I can’t explain it,” he said.
And the host committee decked out the 510-foot-long ship for the occasion: With red, white and blue banners and flags.
The Parris Island Marine Band belted out patriotic tunes. Kids waved American flags. And the commandant of the Marine Corps paid homage to Dunham, the first U.S. Marine to win the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
“It was his selflessness that made him always want to help out the little guy, the underdog,” said the commandant, Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos.
“This is what endeared him to his men. They know that Corporal Dunham cared about their welfare,” he said.
It was in that spirit that the Dunham sailed into South Florida on Nov. 5 from the iron works where it was built for $1.1 billion in Bath, Maine.
Members of its 300-plus crew fanned out across South Florida during the ship’s weeklong stay, visiting schools and hospitals, packing food for the homeless at a Pembroke Pines warehouse and hammering in a Habitat for Humanity project at Boynton Beach.
“Thanks to Jason so many bonds of love and friendship have been formed,” said Cmdr. Scott Sciretta, the ship’s skipper.
“Need any more proof of that? Look at all those buses still trucking in here.”
It was more than halfway through the hour-long ceremony, and spectators were still spilling off charter buses to get a glimpse of the Cruise missile destroyer. It’s equipped with twin Sea Hawk helicopters, torpedoes and the lastest in sonar and radar technology.
“It’s a very big addition in helping defend our country against terrorism,” said retired Air Force Col. Buddy Harris, who came from Boca Raton to witness the ceremony.
Harris was on hand in 1996 when the USS Cole was commissioned in Fort Lauderdale — the Navy warship that al Qaeda would four years later blow up, killing 17 sailors at a port in Aden, Yemen.
Had Dunham lived, Nov. 10 would’ve been his 28th birthday — a date that several speakers noted had great symbolism for this week’s commissioning ceremony. Nov. 10 is also the U.S. Marine Corps birthday.
But Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, chose to draw parallels to another date: April 14.
That’s the day in 2004 when Dunham died in the grenade explosion. But in 1865, he said, that was also the day an assassin took the life of President Abraham Lincoln.
“It is fitting then,” the general told the crowd, “that it was Lincoln who said `In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.’ ”
BY LAURA FIGUEROA