Extraordinary heroism, decisive actions, bold initiative and dedication to duty led one Marine to be posthumously awarded the nation’s second-highest award for valor in combat.
But Marine generals urged those in attendance at the award ceremony to remember Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan W. Gifford not only for how he died, but for how he lived.
Gifford’s widow Lesa stood with their five children as Gen. John M. Paxton, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, presented the Navy Cross alongside 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion Commander Maj. Gen. Mark A. Clark during a ceremony on Tuesday at Marine Special Operations Command Headquarters at Stone Bay aboard Camp Lejeune.
Gifford, team chief for Hotel Company, 2nd MSOB, was conducting what was to be a routine cordon and search mission on July 29, 2012, in Bala Bokan, Afghanistan, alongside the rest of Team 8232 and Afghan commandos when they came under enemy machine gun fire. According to the award citation, Gifford crossed 800 meters of open terrain to perform first aid on wounded Afghan commandos and helped move the casualties to a landing zone for medical evacuation. Then he went back while still under gunfire to return to the fight.
“The other commandos were pinned down under heavy enemy fire, and sustained more casualties,” reads the citation. “Realizing the Afghan force was in jeopardy, Gunnery Sergeant Gifford gathered extra ammunition and, accompanied by a fellow Marine, crossed the same open terrain under fire to reinforce the beleaguered Afghans … He continued to attack until he fell mortally wounded.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Paxton said that he had been following Gifford’s nomination for the Navy Cross closely for 19 months. He called it an honor to present the award to Gifford’s family on behalf of the 190,000 Marines in uniform and the secretary of the Navy and as the assistant commandant.
“When you recognize a stellar Marine … and his exceptional courageousness and bravery I’m not sure you can ever go above and beyond, and (the Navy Cross is) truly deserving and worthy of Gunnery Sergeant Gifford and his sacrifices, his leadership and what he meant to his immediate family, his extended family and to his Marine family,” Paxton said. “It’s humbling first and foremost to realize we have great Americans such as Jonathan Gifford who have served so long and been so steadfast.”
Gifford joined the Marine Corps in 1996 and served with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, prior to being assigned to 2nd Force Recon Company and deployed with the 24th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units. He was honorably discharged in July 2001, but rejoined 2nd Force Recon on active duty when Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2002.
He deployed to Afghanistan with the 22nd MEU and then to Iraq with 2nd Force Recon, where he was meritoriously promoted to staff sergeant. Gifford joined MARSOC in 2006 where he served as the chief instructor at the MARSOC Advanced Sniper Course. His personal awards include the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for valor, two Combat Action Ribbons and four Good Conduct Medals.
Family members in attendance declined interview requests. Members of Gifford’s team also did not wish to be interviewed, citing security regulations within MARSOC and concerns for personal safety.
Thomas Brennan is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.