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November 11, 2006

Two Veterans
We honor today brave Americans who are willing to risk all to defend their fellow citizens' freedom. Americans like Private Joseph Plumb Martin and Corporal Jason Dunham.

When Joseph Plumb Martin was 15, he volunteered for the Connecticut militia in 1776 and served in the Continental Army for the duration of the Revolutionary War and fought in most of its major battles. After struggling so long for American independence in places like Brooklyn, White Plains, Valley Forge and Monmouth, it's fitting that Martin was present for the Revolution's climactic battle at Yorktown.

At Yorktown in October of 1781, Lord Cornwallis and the main contingent of the British army were trapped. American and French forces led by General George Washington, General Comte de Rochambeau, the Marquis de Lafayette and Admiral de Grasse prepared to lay siege from land and sea. The battle commenced when General Washington himself fired the first shot. In his 1830 memoir, The Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, Private Martin describes what happened next:

As soon as the firing began, our people began to cry, "The fort’s our own!" and "Rush on boys!" The Sappers and Miners soon cleared a passage for the infantry, who entered it rapidly. Our Miners were ordered not to enter the fort, but there was no stopping them. "We will go," said they ... I could not pass at the entrance we had made, it was so crowded. I therefore forced a passage at a place where I saw our shot had cut away some of the abatis; several others entered at the same place. While passing, a man at my side received a ball in his head and fell under my feet, crying out bitterly. While crossing the trench, the enemy threw hand grenades (small shells) into it. They were so thick that I at first thought them cartridge papers on fire, but was soon undeceived by their cracking. As I mounted the breastwork, I met an old associate hitching himself down into the trench. I knew him by the light of the enemy’s musketry, it was so vivid. The fort was taken and all quiet in a very short time. Immediately after the firing ceased, I went out to see what had become of my wounded friend and the other that fell in the passage. They were both dead. In the heat of the action I saw a British soldier jump over the walls of the fort next the river and go down the bank, which was almost perpendicular and twenty or thirty feet high. When he came to the beach he made off for the town, and if he did not make good use of his legs I never saw a man that did.

All that were in the action of storming the redoubt were exempted from further duty that night. We laid down upon the ground and rested the remainder of the night as well as a constant discharge of grape and canister shot would permit us to do, while those who were on duty for the day completed the second parallel by including the captured redoubts within it. We returned to camp early in the morning, all safe and sound, except one of our lieutenants, who had received a slight wound on the top of the shoulder by a musket shot. Seven or eight men belonging to the infantry were killed, and a number wounded....

We were on duty in the trenches twenty-four hours, and forty-eight hours in camp. The invalids did the camp duty, and we had nothing else to do but to attend morning and evening roll calls and recreate ourselves as we pleased the rest of the time, till we were called upon to take our turns on duty in the trenches again. The greatest inconvenience we felt was the want of good water, there being none near our camp but nasty frog ponds where all the horses in the neighborhood were watered, and we were forced to wade through the water in the skirts of the ponds, thick with mud and filth, to get at water in any wise fit for use, and that full of frogs ...

In the morning, while the relieves were coming into the trenches, I was sitting on the side of the trench, when some of the New York troops coming in, one of the sergeants stepped up to the breastwork to look about him. The enemy threw a small shell which fell upon the outside of the works; the man turned his face to look at it. At that instant a shot from the enemy, which doubtless was aimed for him in particular as none others were in sight of them, passed just by his face without touching him at all. He fell dead into the trench. I put my hand on his forehead and found his skull was shattered all in pieces and the blood flowing from his nose and mouth, but not a particle of skin was broken. I never saw an instance like this among all the men I saw killed during the whole war.

After we had finished our second line of trenches there was but little firing on either side. After Lord Cornwallis had failed to get off, upon the seventeenth day of October (a rather unlucky day for the British) he requested a cessation of hostilities for, I think, twenty-four hours, when commissioners from both armies met at a house between the lines to agree upon articles of capitulation. We waited with anxiety the termination of the armistice and as the time drew nearer our anxiety increased. The time at length arrived — it passed, and all remained quiet. And now we concluded that we had obtained what we had taken so much pains for, for which we had encountered so many dangers, and had so anxiously wished. Before night we were informed that the British had surrendered and that the siege was ended.

Nearly 223 years later on April 14, 2004, another young American -- Marine Corporal Jason Dunham of Scio, New York -- was at war. While on patrol in Iraq's al-Anbar province, Cpl. Dunham gave his life to save the lives of his Marines.

Yesterday, the Marine Corps' 231st anniversary and what would've been Jason Dunham's 25th birthday, President Bush dedicated the new National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia and told the story of Cpl. Dunham's uncommon valor:

Like the Marines who have come before them, this new generation has also given some of its finest men in the line of duty. One of these fine men was Jason Dunham. Jason's birthday is November the 10th, so you might say that he was born to be a Marine. And as far back as boot camp, his superiors spotted the quality that would mark this young American as an outstanding Marine: his willingness to put the needs of others before his own.

Corporal Dunham showed that spirit in April 2004, while leading a patrol of his Marines in an Iraqi town near the Syrian border. When a nearby Marine convoy was ambushed, Corporal Dunham led his squad to the site of the attack, where he and his men stopped a convoy of cars that were trying to make an escape. As he moved to search one of the vehicles, an insurgent jumped out and grabbed the Corporal by the throat. The Corporal engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. At one point he shouted to his fellow Marines, "No, no, no, watch his hand." Moments later, an enemy grenade rolled out. Corporal Dunham did not hesitate; he jumped on the grenade to protect his fellow Marines, he used his helmet and his body to absorb the blast.

A friend who was there that terrible day put it this way: "Corporal Dunham had a gift from God. Everyone who came in contact with him wanted to be like him. He was the toughest Marine, but the nicest guy. He would do anything for you. Corporal Dunham was the kind of person everybody wants as their best friend." Despite surviving the initial blast and being given the best of medical care, Corporal Dunham ultimately succumbed to his wounds. And by giving his own life, Corporal Dunham saved the lives of two of his men and showed the world what it means to be a Marine.

Corporal Dunham's mom and dad are with us today on what would have been this brave young man's 25th birthday. We remember that the Marine who so freely gave his life was your beloved son. We ask a loving God to comfort you for a loss that can never be replaced. And on this special birthday, in the company of his fellow Marines, I'm proud to announce that our nation will recognize Corporal Jason Dunham's action with America's highest decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor.

As long as we have Marines like Corporal Dunham, America will never fear for her liberty.

Cpl. Jason Dunham gave his life to secure the freedom first won in the American Revolution by soldiers like Private Joseph Plumb Martin. These two men, separated by over 200 years, are part of what General George C. Marshall described as America's "secret weapon--the best damn kids in the world." And they are exemplary representatives of the veterans we thank on this day.

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