In April 2004, a convoy of Marines came under small arms and RPG fire near Karabilah, Iraq. Marines from Camp Husaybah were dispatched to go in search of the attackers. While searching vehicles for weapons at a checkpoint, one Marine was assaulted by an unknown Iraqi holding a grenade. That Marine was Cpl. Jason Dunham.
The two fell to the ground. From the Iraqi's hand came a live grenade. Dunham threw himself on top of it, covering the grenade with his kevlar helmet and his body. When it exploded, the grenade shredded his helmet and mortally wounded the 22-year-old Dunham. He died a few days later, on Apr. 22, 2004.
On the table is what remained of Cpl. Dunham's kevlar helmet after taking a full grenade blast.
Jason Dunham did what he thought was the right thing to do: heroically throwing himself on a grenade to save others. The selfless act rightfully earned him the Medal of Honor, which was presented to his family by President George W. Bush in January 2007. A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer now bears his name (and his dress uniform, complete with Medal of Honor, on its quarterdeck).
Dunham (left) posthumously received the Medal of Honor three years later. An Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer was named USS Jason Dunham in his honor. He was the first Marine awarded the Medal of Honor for Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)
Using the kevlar helmet did blunt the explosion, according to a Wall Street Journal reporter who followed Dunham's story very closely. But the shrapnel pierced Dunham's skull and he suffered heavy brain damage. No one else in the area received life-threatening injuries.
What makes the story even more remarkable is that Cpl. Dunham and his fellow Marines had been talking about the very same eventuality just a few days prior — what to do in case you have to respond to a grenade attack. One Marine advised kicking it away. Another said to drop and make yourself a small target for the fragments with your feet facing the grenade. Dunham's response to the real-life situation was exactly what he said it should be: He covered it with his helmet.
Is that the best way to handle a grenade? No, but in the opinion of other infantry veterans, Dunham did the right thing. Anyone who covers a grenade with their kevlar is going to be severely wounded. And, chances are, Dunham would probably have been killed by the grenade regardless due to his proximity. But his helmet likely absorbed all of the grenade's shrapnel and allowed his fellow Marines to come out relatively unscathed.
But what do you do if you don't have a hero like a Jason Dunham to throw himself on a grenade and save you? Dan Rosenthal, an infantry veteran and three-time top Quora writer, has some advice for those who face a grenade without any cover to hide behind. First and foremost, don't try to throw it back. You have about three to five seconds of reaction time, so running isn't an option. Basically, expect to get hit – but minimize where and how much you're hit to maximize your chances of survival.
If you didn't dig your defensive fighting position with a grenade sump, the best thing you can do is get down on the ground with your kevlar pointed toward the blast. Helmets (and modern shoulder pads) were designed to protect from fragmentation.
Might be worth the effort.
Your second best bet is to put your feet toward the blast. This technique is most notable for civilians falling victim to a terrorist attack that uses grenades. Minimize exposure to the blast and make yourself a small target for the fragmentation.