Cover Story


The long, heroic list of American servicemen who died defending freedom has grown by the hundreds since Memorial Day, 2003. Many of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq did so to save the lives of others. Here are a few of their stories

Issue: "Memorial Day 2004," May 29, 2004

BOB WILLIAMSON KNOWS about war. The World War II veteran served in the South Pacific from 1943 to 1946 with the U.S. Navy. Now, more than half a century later, Washington is finally memorializing the 292,131 fallen American fighters who helped to crush the Axis powers. On May 29, the American Battle Monuments Commission will dedicate the new National World War II Memorial, a regal display of reflecting pools, bronze columns, and historic inscriptions situated between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

For Mr. Williamson the tribute was long overdue. The veteran, now in his 70s and living in Illinois, visited the new memorial earlier this month with Marie, his wife of 58 years. But while he is proud to have served in the fighting force that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw dubbed the "Greatest Generation," Mr. Williamson thinks today's U.S. military is tougher, more professional, and better trained than the military of his day. They also have it tougher, he says, fighting an enemy that doesn't wear a uniform and hides in the shadows.

Mrs. Williamson, meanwhile, worries that at least half of Americans don't understand what's at stake in the war in Iraq. "Freedom," she said, "is an expensive commodity."

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As of May 19, 791 military service members had paid the price-and every one of them volunteered. Unlike previous declared wars, none of the American warriors now fighting and dying to keep terror from U.S. shores was drafted. And all who volunteered for the Army or Marine Corps since Sept. 11, 2001, knew they were signing up for more than college or job training or tickets out of dead-end towns: They knew they would likely be called to lay their lives on the line. Some died living out the biblical sentiment expressed in John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends."

Army Private First Class Jesse Halling did. He was only 19. As a kindergartner, the boy from Indianapolis liked to draw pictures of jets, helicopters, and tanks. As soon as he could, he enlisted in the Army.

Assigned to the 401st Military Police Company in Ft. Hood, Texas, Pfc. Halling's unit came under fire on June 7, 2003, in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Manning the turret of his Humvee, Pfc. Halling ordered his squad mates to take cover while he returned fire. When the turret-mounted M-60 machine gun ran out of bullets, he grabbed his M-16 and kept firing, while trying to reload the M-60 and shouting out the location of the enemy, and where to return fire.

The Army credits the teenager with saving the lives of three to five other men. Pfc. Halling refused to leave his post, holding off enemy forces until shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade cut him down.

At a memorial service last June, friends described Pfc. Halling as a typical fun-loving teen who liked trucks and fast motorcycles. He was handsome they said-"a chick magnet." Pam Hallings, the soldier's mother, still gazes at her son every day. She keeps a picture of him on her computer at work that shows Jesse, surrounded by smiling Iraqi children. "Sometimes I look at it and I lose it," she told the Indianapolis Star in March. "He's smiling, and all the kids are smiling. It's a beautiful picture.... [But] it's hard to see his face and think that he's gone."

Jason Dunham is gone, too. Just 22, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2000, right after graduating from high school in Scio, N.Y. In school, Jason wasn't shy: In third grade, he once declared his affection for a female classmate, sending her a note that said, "Come on and kiss me, baby." In high school, he was a star athlete but not prideful, the type to befriend and help out underclassmen when other older students would ignore them.

That's why no one in Scio was surprised to learn that on April 14, Cpl. Dunham sacrificed himself to save two fellow marines. A machine gunner and squadron leader, Cpl. Dunham was guarding a vehicle checkpoint in Karbala along with two other marines under his command. According to a Marine Corps report, a car pulled up to the checkpoint and a man got out and started running. Cpl. Dunham tackled the man, who then pulled a pin from a grenade. The marine threw himself between the grenade and his men before it exploded. Mortally wounded, Cpl. Dunham died eight days later. His sacrificial heroism saved the lives of the other two marines, who are now recovering from wounds sustained in the attack.


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