Orderly rows of white headstones line national cemeteries throughout our country. Each bears a name and behind that is a story of sacrifice. Today, a grateful nation remembers, but there is more we can do.
It was Feb. 22, 1969. 24-year-old Spc. 4th Class Robert Law and his Ranger team were on a long-range reconnaissance mission in the jungle of Tinh Phuoc Tanh Province, Vietnam, when they encountered a small but well-armed enemy patrol. During an intense firefight, Law, “maneuvered to a perilously exposed position,” his Medal of Honor citation says, to lay down suppressive fire on the hostile forces.
Law’s bravery rallied his fellow soldiers, who were running low on ammo and suffering “from an unidentified irritating gas in the air.” Then, an enemy grenade landed in his team’s position. “Law, instead of diving into the safety of a stream behind him, threw himself on the grenade.”
To save the lives of his brothers, Robert Law gave his own.
Thirty-five years later, in Karabilah, Iraq, Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham was leading his squad on a reconnaissance mission when, in the town about a mile away, insurgents ambushed their battalion commander’s convoy. Dunham rushed his patrol toward their fellow Marines.
As they approached the town, Dunham’s team jumped out of their Humvees and proceeded on foot, searching the streets for the enemy. They came upon a line of vehicles leaving the area through an alleyway. Dunham’s team stopped them and began searching each car for weapons. As Dunham neared a beat-up Toyota Land Cruiser, an insurgent lurched out and grabbed the Marine by the throat. Dunham wrestled the man to the ground and then suddenly yelled out to his Marines, “watch his hand!” A live grenade fell from the insurgent’s hand. Dunham covered it with “his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast,” his Medal of Honor citation explains.
The 22-year-old died of his injuries eight days later in Bethesda, Maryland, with his parents at his side. “The day we sat there and held his hand as he passed away, I can remember every single second of it,” his father said. “I thank God I got to be there when he was leaving, because I know a lot of parents didn’t.”
Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy’s parents are among them. In 2005, Murphy was leading a small team to locate an enemy militia leader in the mountains of Afghanistan. Given a tip on the SEALs’ location by local sympathizers, more than 50 Taliban fighters attacked the four-man crew. Murphy and his team fought back, but were overwhelmed — their communicator was killed and Murphy and the two others severely wounded.
The unforgiving terrain blocked radio signals, making it impossible to call for help from their covered position. So, despite his grave wounds, Murphy scrambled onto an exposed ridgeline to make the call. Under heavy fire, Murphy relayed his team’s position to headquarters. He dropped the phone momentarily when he was shot in the back. Although mortally wounded, he resumed his call and continued to fire at the enemy.
Michael Murphy chose to spend his final moments in a selfless attempt to save his two teammates.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Duty and service to our country brought these men to the jungles of Vietnam, the desert of Iraq, and the mountains of Afghanistan. But it was love for their brothers that motivated their final actions.
They gave their lives so that their fellow warriors would live. And now, our nation must honor those who didn’t come home by properly caring for their brothers and sisters who did.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs exists to fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “to care for him who shall have borne the battle” but, for far too long, it has not kept this promise. This Memorial Day, we must resolve that veterans will no longer go without proper access to the care they earned and that those who fail them, through negligence or misconduct, will be held accountable. We must be able to say to Sp4c. Law, Cpl. Dunham, Lt. Murphy, and all those who made the ultimate sacrifice, “thank you. Rest easy. They’ll be taken care of from here.”
• Mark Lucas is the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.