Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor had just an instant to react when a hand grenade was tossed into his rooftop hideout in Iraq.
"He was thinking, 'I could run for it, or I could throw it,'" said George Monsoor, the Navy SEAL's father. "Instead, he fell on it."
Monsoor, a 25-year-old Southern Californian who liked fast cars and snowboarding, is among a small number of fighting men in Iraq who lost their lives after making the in-a-heartbeat decision to throw themselves on a grenade to save others.
One was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. Monsoor and another are being considered for the decoration.
Since the Civil War, 3,461 men and one woman have received the medal, awarded for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. Before the war in Iraq, the award was last bestowed for bravery during the 1993 battle of Mogadishu in Somalia.
President Bush said Nov. 10 that Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham of Scio, N.Y., would receive the Medal of Honor, becoming the second person to be decorated with the award for service in Iraq and the first Marine since the Vietnam War. The only other recipient from the Iraq war is Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, 33, a man from the Tampa, Fla., area who died in battle at the Baghdad airport in April 2003.
In April 2004, Dunham, a 22-year-old corporal, threw himself on a grenade that was dropped during a hand-to-hand fight with an insurgent near Husaybah, Iraq. He covered the explosive with his Kevlar helmet, which along with his chest plate, absorbed some of the blast. He died of head wounds a few days later.
"He always took care of people," said Dunham's father, Daniel. "I don't believe it was instinct. You have a choice."
Dunham's father said he was "very honored that my son did the right thing and saved people's lives," but added: "They say there's no greater thing. Well, there is a greater thing, and that would be to have my son back."
At the same time, the fallen Marine's father said he understood his son's heroics: "When you are in a war situation, that guy beside you is your brother or sister. And I think that most of us would give up our lives for our family."
Another Marine, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, of San Diego, is also being considered for the nation's highest military award.
Sacrifices more likely in close-knit units
Peralta was shot during a house-to-house search in Fallujah. Lying wounded on the floor of a home, he grabbed a grenade that had been lobbed in by an insurgent. The blast killed him.
"If he wouldn't have scooped up the grenade, the other three of us in the room that day would have been killed," said former Cpl. Robert Reynolds, who was in Peralta's squad. Reynolds said Peralta sacrificed himself because "he wanted to make sure we all went home."
That kind of sacrifice is more likely in close-knit units, said Joseph A. Blake, a Fairborn, Ohio, sociologist who researched the act of soldiers throwing themselves on grenades.
"A combat situation has not a whole lot to do with patriotism or the folks back home," Blake said. "They are fighting for their buddies. They don't want to let their buddies down."
Since World War I, there has been an increasing tendency to award the Medal of Honor for saving comrades rather than for "war-winning" acts of aggression, Blake said. "What has been happening is a shift away from gung-ho aggressive things to aiding and supporting one's comrades," he said.
As for Monsoor, "we just knew that if Mike was put in a situation like he was, he wouldn't hesitate," his mother, Sally Monsoor, said from her home in Garden Grove, outside Los Angeles.
One SEAL lieutenant, who asked not to be identified by name for security reasons, watched Monsoor shield him and others from exploding hot metal Sept. 29 when the grenade blew up their sniper position in Ramadi, in Anbar province.
"Mikey had the best chance of avoiding harm altogether," said the officer. "But he never took his eye off the grenade."