A tearful President Bush on Thursday presented the nation's highest military honor to the late Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham of Allegany County, who died in Iraq in 2004 after diving on a grenade to save the lives of two of his comrades.
A little more than 12 hours after announcing plans to send another 21,500 troops to Iraq, the somber-faced president went to the podium in the East Room of the White House which was jam-packed with Washington luminaries and Marines in full dress uniforms to give the Medal of Honor to Dunham's family.
"With this medal we pay tribute to the courage and leadership of a man who represents the best of young Americans," Bush said. "With this medal we ask the God who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves to wrap his arms around the family of Cpl. Jason Dunham, a Marine who is not here today because he lived that commandment to the fullest."
Bush then presented the Medal of Honor only the second to go to a service member who fought in the Iraq War to Dunham's parents, Dan and Deb Dunham of Scio, and other family members.
It was a moving ceremony for all of those involved, most notably the president.
"I have never been in his presence where I've seen him actually cry," said Rep. Randy Kuhl, R-Hammondsport. "And there were tears running down his face."
The Dunhams, meanwhile, stressed that their son was by no means the only brave young American to die courageously in Iraq.
"Their names are all attached to this medal," Dan Dunham said after the ceremony. "They're all courageous. They all have valor."
Yet few servicemen ever perform an act as selfless as the one that cost Dunham his life.
On April 14, 2004, Dunham was in the town of Karbala in western Iraq, where his squad responded after a nearby Marine convoy had come under attack.
Dunham's unit stopped several vehicles that were trying to flee the site of the ambush, and an insurgent in one of the vehicles attacked Dunham and pulled out a grenade he had been hiding.
"Cpl. Dunham did not hesitate," Bush said. "He jumped on the grenade, using his helmet and body to absorb the blast. Although he survived the initial explosion, he did not survive his wounds. But by his selflessness, Cpl. Dunham saved the lives of two of his men and showed the world what it means to be a Marine."
Dunham quickly became a legend in the Marine Corps.
"I've lost my son, but he became a part of history," Mrs. Dunham said. "And it still hurts as a parent, but I have pride in knowing that he did the right thing."
Dunham joins approximately 3,400 American service members who have been awarded the Medal of Honor since President Abraham Lincoln created it in 1861.
Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. military's top officer, were all on hand for the ceremony, as was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
New York's two senators had scheduling conflicts and could not attend but later played host to the Dunham family on Capitol Hill.
"It was an honor to meet with Jason's parents today and to offer our deepest respect for their loss and for their son's heroism," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. "I know that nothing can erase the pain of having lost such a kind and generous son who was so loved by his family and his community, but his memory lives on as a supreme example of bravery and selflessness."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "Cpl. Dunham unflinchingly gave what Lincoln deemed 'the last full measure of devotion' and his heroism reflects the true spirit of selflessness, leadership, and courage that the Medal of Honor was established to recognize."
McCain, a strong supporter of Bush's proposed troop buildup in Iraq, said after the ceremony: "It's always a very moving experience and it reminds us what's at stake here and the sacrifice that these young Americans have made."
He also noted that "there is an interesting juxtaposition between this ceremony and what this nation has got to do."
Soon after the event, Bush traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., to address troops about to depart for Iraq. Asked for their words for troops who are about to join the fight, the Dunhams said they support them.
"They'll be in our prayers," Dan Dunham said.