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THE WORLD | THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

3 Young Marines Gave Their Lives for the 'Tribe'

The servicemen, all in their early 20s, have been nominated for medals to honor the sacrifice they made defending comrades.

May 26, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — They were young, and they sacrificed their lives for their fellow Marines. Now, the Corps is seeking to honor their bravery.

Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, 22, of Scio, N.Y., dived on a grenade at a checkpoint. He has been nominated for a Medal of Honor.

Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin, 22, of Amarillo, Texas, took the lead in repelling an assault, continuing to fire after being struck several times and finally throwing a grenade to push back the enemy. He has been nominated for a Navy Cross.

Cpl. Kevin T. Kolm, 23, of Hicksville, N.Y., led and was the main gunner in an effort to reach Marines who were surrounded by insurgents and in danger of being killed. He has been nominated for a Bronze Star, with V for Valor.

"Everything they've been taught from the day they put their feet on those yellow footprints [at boot camp] says the Marine Corps is like a tribe," said Brig. Gen. Richard Kramlich. "You're there to do your job so you can take care of your fellow Marines.... It's a single-mindedness."

Here is a look at the three members of the 1st Marine Division, their short lives and violent deaths.

Cpl. Jason L. Dunham

In Scio, a tiny community two hours south of Buffalo, Jason Dunham was a star high school athlete, particularly as a slugger in baseball.

He enlisted through the delayed-entry program before his senior year. His father had served in the Air Force but he joined the Marines, his mother said, "because they were the toughest." Before he shipped out, he had a long talk with his father about funeral arrangements and other matters "in case I don't come home." And his final letter had a prophetic tone. "I'll be home when the time is right," Dunham wrote.

A machine gunner with the 7th Marine Regiment, Dunham led a squad manning a checkpoint near the Syrian border in mid-April.

A U.S. convoy had just been ambushed, and Marines were checking cars for suspects. A car pulled up and a man fled. Dunham gave chase and tackled him. Other Marines came to his aid.

The driver pulled a pin from a grenade; Dunham tried to surround it to spare his buddies. He was grievously wounded and was airlifted for medical attention, ultimately to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.

"He wanted to save Marines' lives from the grenade," said Lance Cpl. Mark Dean of Owasso, Okla., a mortarman with the company. "God made something special when he made Jason."

"Cpl. Dunham is everybody's hero," said Sgt. Maj. Wayne Bell, the top enlisted man in the 1st Marine Division. "He will be in the history books."

Dunham died 10 days after the incident. Gen. Michael W. Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, went to Bethesda to be with Dunham's parents during the final hours.

"We just wish more people in America would put other people first like Jason did," said his mother, Deb.

Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin

Aaron Austin had been a small-town maverick with a wild streak. But those days were gone.

He and his girlfriend had set a wedding date and even picked out the country song to be played at the event, Trace Adkins' "It Was You."

As part of a weapons company with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, he was part of the "tip of the spear" in the fight for Fallouja. The company fought numerous skirmishes in the Jolan neighborhood in the city's northwest corner.

But the battle of April 26 was bigger than anything the Marines had seen. They were attacked while clearing a house. For two hours the fighting was vicious, with insurgents pushing to within 20 yards of the Marines' position, hurling grenades.

Off duty at the time, Austin ran to the fight, evacuating the wounded and helping to position gunners on the roof. "We need to get that gun back up," he yelled when a gunner, one of 16 casualties, was hit.

With a gunner position open and the insurgents advancing, Austin rushed to close the breach. Hit in the chest several times, he continued to fire his machine gun, refusing to be evacuated.

To get space to throw a grenade, Austin needed to put himself in the line of fire. He did so, was hit again by enemy fire, but scored a bull's-eye.

"Everybody loved Austin. He was a character," said Capt. Douglas Zembiec, commander of Echo Company. "He was a rowdy but you knew that deep down when trouble broke out, he'd be there for you."

Cpl. Kevin T. Kolm

Tall and gregarious, Kevin Kolm is said to have had the personality of a leader. Other Marines flocked to him, enjoying his easy sense of humor and his love of rock 'n' roll. He had the title of a Pearl Jam song, "Release," tattooed on his back.

"He was a friend, a mentor, a really great guy," said Lance Cpl. Matthew Puckett of Mason, Texas.

Kolm's father was a Marine who served in Vietnam, his grandfather a Marine in World War II. He considered no other choice when he decided to enter the military after a year working in construction.

"He was happy and ready to go" into combat, said Master Sgt. Martin Vargas of Los Angeles.

Early in the monthlong battle for Fallouja, Kolm, as mission commander of an amphibious assault vehicle, was given the risky assignment of rescuing Marines pinned down in a building by insurgents.

With Puckett driving and Kolm firing a .50-caliber machine gun, the vehicle was hit by volleys of rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire from several directions. Kolm refused to turn back. The vehicle caught fire.

As it approached the building, Kolm was killed. His body could not be immediately retrieved from the burning vehicle.

But the mission was a success. In tribute, four fellow Marines vowed to have "Release" tattooed on their arms along with the date of Kolm's death.

Capt. Benjamin Venning, Kolm's company commander, said his heroism, as well as that of other Marines that day, came from a desire to live up to "the people who have come before you."

"This was their moment to put their fingerprints on Marine Corps history, a chance to share in that history," Venning said.

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