Photo by Kathryn Ross
The director and producer of the “The Gift” meet with Jason Dunham’s friends as they introduce the documentary to the community. From left are director David Kniess, Justin Lambert and producer Chase Peel in the Nancy Howe Auditorium Friday night.
By KATHRYN ROSS
WELLSVILLE — “The Gift” was really a gift to the community when it made its Western New York premiere Friday night to a select audience in the David A. Howe Public Library auditorium.
“The Gift” is a five-part documentary about Medal of Honor recipient Jason Dunham of Scio, the U.S. Marine who gave his life in April 2004 after throwing himself on a grenade to save men in his squad following a car search in Karabilah, Iraq.
That was 18 years ago. Why a documentary now, director David Kniess was asked prior to the opening scenes of the documentary.
He revealed that he is a retired U.S. Navy veteran and that he has been involved with the Khe Sanh Veterans Association from the Vietnam War for many years and works to bring awareness to the problems veterans face upon returning home.
But, amazingly, Kniess met Dunham in 2003 when they were both on a redeye flight out of California headed east to be with family during the holiday season.
“I saw him when I got on the plane. He was high and tight (military haircut) and I knew immediately that he was a Marine,” Kniess recalled. “We sat together and talked the whole night through. I knew there was a war coming, so when we parted to change for our connecting flights I told him, ‘Take care of yourself.’ He smiled and said he would.”
Kniess is an award-winning producer with over 20 years of experience working in network television film production marketing and advertising.
Because of his interest in the military, Kniess monitors many military websites. A year after the flight, the war in Iraq was underway and he was looking at a list of those killed in action. A name stood out to him, and he researched it, and found that it was the young man from Scio with whom he had spent the night on the plane.
He wrote about the chance meeting with the young man for an article published in the Military Times magazine.
Deb Dunham read it.
She called Kniess. He said, “I didn’t answer it. Two weeks later she called again but I still didn’t answer it.”
Several weeks later he did return the call and ended up traveling to Scio (17 years ago last week) and becoming friends with the family. He was invited to the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House in January 2007. He met many of the men of Kilo Company (Dunham’s company) and became friends with them and over the years they shared their stories and remorse, trials and tribulations with him.
Two years ago, the men from the Khe Sanh veterans group urged him to make a documentary about Dunham and the impact his sacrifice has had on his fellow Marines. He had been at the Kilo reunion at the Dunham home in Scio in 2017.
“The big problem was raising the $400,000 it would take to make the film,” he recalled. That is when former Marine Anthony Taylor, who retired in 2004, learned about the project. He decided to finance the production.
Kniess received permission from the Dunhams to make the documentary and started conducting interviews and researching Dunham’s life.
Throughout the interviews, Dunham’s family, friends and fellow Maines talk about the gift of their lives they have received because of Dunham’s action. They stress how they want to be worthy of that gift and live up to Dunham’s standards and always remember his sacrifice and his family’s sacrifice.
“At 22-years-old Jason didn’t just make the decision to give his life to protect his Marines, that was something he learned when he was 1 year old from his family and from the people in the community where he grew up where he learned to care for one another,” Kniess said. “It is about family. His Marine family. It is about community.”
The director said that the first part of the series was shown two weeks ago at the Marine Museum in Quantico, Va. Friday’s showing was the same segment. He said that he is currently “shopping” the entire five-part series to media outlets, including Netflix and Amazon.
He hopes the documentary will not only tell Dunham’s story to the world but will also show its impact on his fellow Marines and spotlight the problems they face when returning to civilian life.