For Dan and Deb Dunham of Scio, the pain and sorrow that has accompanied the passing of their son, Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, during an act of military bravery and heroism 15 years ago will never go away. They live with it each day.
Yet, it means so much when from time to time they are brought comfort by those who remember including, friends, community, the military, Jason's former Marine comrades and also the local auto racing community of which the Dunham family has been part of for many years.
On Friday, Freedom Motorsports Park will host the annual United Late Model Series (ULMS) Jason Dunham Memorial in honor and remembrance of Dunham, who delivered the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
Dunham was posthumously honored with the Medal of Honor for actions while conducting a reconnaissance mission during the Iraq War. While on patrol in Husaybah on April 14, 2004, his unit was attacked and he deliberately covered an enemy grenade to save nearby Marines. Dunham was gravely injured and died eight days later at the age of 22.
Dunham also has a U.S. naval ship named in his honor, the USS Jason Dunham.
"I love the fact that this race remembers Jason," Deb said. "Families remember when we lose a family member, but the Marines, the Navy and the racing community remembers Jason on more than just Memorial Day. By remembering Jason, they also remember our active military and our fallen military that have given us our freedom."
Dan says the grieving goes on, but events like the Dunham Memorial have healing power.
"What sometimes people don't understand is that there is an old saying that the death of a loved one gets easier with time. That's a lie," Dan said. "Today, 15 years later, it's like I held Jason's hand yesterday. We still cry. We still have emotional problems.
"But all this outpouring from the outside is also part of our healing and keeps us driving forward. When someone calls and says that they are remembering Jason today or they say they remember when Jason did this or did that or are you guys doing all right and we still get that, it keeps us moving on and holding onto Jason. It's keeps Jason here with us."
"It's quite an emotional loss," Deb said. "When we go to gatherings or something people will say, 'Oh it's so nice to see all the family together,' but Dan and I will look at each other and say, 'No, not everyone is here.' It's a comfort and an honor that so many people remember Jason and are willing to hold a memorial race where you can also say, 'Hey guys we still have active military that are wounded and those who have fallen.'
"The racing community is special. There's competition on the track and in the pits, but if it comes to helping each other as people in difficult times, the racing people are there."
Jason actually extended his service time because of the dedication to his Marine buddies.
"I think we take for granted sometimes the sacrifices our military have made for us," Dan said. "In July of 2000, Jason joined the military. He was 17 and got our permission to do the delayed entry program. He actually went in when he was 18. Jason was actually scheduled to be out of the Marines before his deployment in 2004, but he decided to extend his service because the guys he trained with were in and he wanted to go out with them.
"He planned on becoming a state trooper when he got out."
Jason is the oldest of four siblings, joining Justin (now age 36), Kyle (30) and Katie (26).
"I raced about 22 years," Dan said. "Early on as a youngster Jason helped out with my race cars and he pretty much did so right up until he went in the military. He was a big part of the team for at least eight to 10 years helping around the garage and at the track. He asked me if I could get another race car after he got out of the military because I raced the dirt Late Models for awhile.
"In 2007 or 20o8, I actually did get a car. My brother and I put it together. I won a race in 2008 and got out and dedicated it to Jason and I haven't been in a race car since and I don't plan to ever be again."
Over the years Dan raced in various classes and at different tracks. He won championships at McKean County Raceway in Pennsylvania and another at Bradford Speedway, also in Pennsylvania, and raced Late Models in Ohio and Canada.
"I think I hit most every track within an eight-hour drive from home," he said. "I started in Street Stocks and I ended in dirt Late Models."
Dan is also a veteran, having served in the Air Force from 1979 to 1982.
"Different tracks have hosted our son's memorial race over the years," Dan said. "Chris Zuver (ULMS director) has put on this race faithfully each year. He's a good guy and we are grateful for what he has done for us. I'm happy when anybody in an aspect remembers not only Jason but all our fallen veterans."
The ULMS Super Late Models, DIRT.car Sportsman, Street Stocks, Mini Stocks and Bandits will all partake in Freedom's 7:30 p.m. Friday card.