Iraq War: Retired Marine Faces The Past
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR news. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we are going to spend some time across North Africa and the Middle East. It's the first day of spring, and that means it's the Persian New Year. We are going to celebrate Nowruz later in the program, with a comedian who's putting a new spin on the holiday. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, we are going to spend some time talking about Iraq. It's been 10 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Tomorrow, we will speak with a former Iraqi journalist who was there covering the war, and we'll talk about how that changed his life. Today, though, we are going to focus on one American veteran. His name is Dario DiBattista. He was a Marine. He served two tours in Iraq, but the cost of the war really hit home for him after he return to civilian life, and Corporal Dario DiBattista wrote about that story in the Washingtonian Magazine, and he's here with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
DARIO DIBATTISTA: Hello, Michel. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Is it OK if I start by thanking you for your service?
MARTIN: How does that sit with you, when someone does that?
DIBATTISTA: Honestly, I always remind them, I graduated boot camp two-and-a-half weeks before 9/11 in 2001. So I thank them and say, you know, I appreciate that, but the ones who joined afterward and the ones who continue to reenlist and keep doing what they are doing, those are the true heroes to me.
MARTIN: Do you feel good about your service?
DIBATTISTA: I do. For me, I was just kind of a very undisciplined, unmotivated kid. My high school guidance counselor told me I had the lowest GPA possible to graduate, and I kind of believe her.
DIBATTISTA: I'd go to class every day, and just kind of slack off. I just - it wasn't - it didn't get my attention. I didn't really see a purpose in it. And I was following that path. I knew after high school I'd have to do something, maybe go to community college and sit there. I wouldn't have to be there. I just wouldn't follow anything. I needed some sort of change. I just - there was a lot of skills that I thought I could get from the Marines.
MARTIN: After 9/11, did that change your feeling about things? Did you realize at that point that you were going to have - your military service was going to be involved in a war. You were going to be involved in a war, in some way. And I just wondered how you thought about that, or how you felt about that.
DIBATTISTA: Yeah, it was a big shock. You know, I joined with some sort of understanding that, yes, these things could happen. But the Reserves had been used the last 10 years in a way they've never been used in the history of the armed services of the United States of America, which is 230 something years of tradition. You know, one of the ways they get behind the draft is they will use reservists over and over again, and a lot of them aren't just taking backseat roles. You have people on the frontlines, like civil affairs, what I did, military police, even infantry companies patrolling the streets, and doing the same thing active duty guys are. So it's a big burden.
MARTIN: One of the most important jobs that you had was recruiting.
MARTIN: And you wrote a piece for Washingtonian a couple years ago called "Recruiting Norm Anderson." Who's Norm Anderson?
DIBATTISTA: Norm Anderson was - he was a potential recruit that I had met when I was at the recruiting substation in Towson, Maryland. After 9/11, it seemed stupid to me to be a one-weekend-a-month, two-week-a-year warrior. It made more sense - you know, there was wars going on. Marines take a lot of pride in being committed and always being there. So I tried to go on active duty, but that was the only thing I could find.
I found him through another young recruit we had already brought into the fold. And he said, hey, I got this guy, his father was in the Army. He wants to join, but, you know, we need to talk to him to joining the green side, the Marine side. There was a lot of pressure there, as you can imagine, after 9/11, in a mostly healthy economy with a war going on. People weren't lining up at the doors to enlist in the Marine Corps. My entire time there, we only had one person walk in saying, hey, I want to be a Marine. Send me to boot camp. Everybody else we had to find by dialing extensive lists, trolling through the malls, area canvassing, holding different events.
And it was tough, and it was challenging. And I wanted to prove that I could be a good Marine, I could do whatever task was given to me, and, you know, I kind of made Norm my personal mission that way.
MARTIN: He was good. He was good, right? He was a good Marine.
DIBATTISTA: Yeah. He was good. Honestly, one of the things you would do as a recruiter is you have your mission, and sometimes you wanted the best of the best, but you still got to do what you do. Him and Josh were both young recruits that I knew would be outstanding Marines. And I respected them for having the courage to join and go - you know, they just said, hey. I want to be in the infantry. Put me over there. You know, put me in harm's way. That's an amazing level of courage.
MARTIN: And he did go in harm's way.
DIBATTISTA: They did. They both did.
MARTIN: What happened to Norm?
DIBATTISTA: Norm was killed. He stepped in front of a suicide bomber. He was credited with saving many lives that day. It was in a place - a region called Al Qa'im on the Syrian border that I had served in about a year before. I found out about his passing at a bar where his widow was grieving that same night. The bartender I knew from going there so often after the war, you know, like a lot of troops, I took to a lot of self-medication. It was a place I would go enough that, you know, if I forgot to pay my bar tab, they'd be, like, all right. He'll be back tomorrow - one of those things. And the bartender knew me. He knew I had served in Iraq, and he asked me to speak to the widow, which I did.
MARTIN: What did you say to her?
DIBATTISTA: I remember just going up to her and thinking this was going to be weird, uncomfortable, awkward. But the thing about the Marines is, when you serve and you have those forged bonds of hardships, everybody who's served becomes your brother, but by extension, their family members do to. So I just stood next to her and said, hey, I'm a lance corporal in the Marines. I heard about your loss. I'm here for you. And we talked. We talked for a very long time.
MARTIN: How did you figure out that he was, in fact, the young man whom you'd recruited?
DIBATTISTA: When she told me her name. I was able to make the connection. The Marine Corps is very small. Anybody who was recruited out of Maryland, for a time, I probably had some connection to.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us, we are talking about the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq. I'm speaking with veteran Dario DiBattista, Corporal Dario DiBattista. He's now an adjunct professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County. So, I don't know how to put it. The life came full circle. The war kind of came full circle in that moment for you. You yourself went and served in Iraq. Was she angry at you? Or was her family angry at you?
DIBATTISTA: That was the really shocking part. There was no anger. There was no rage that I could get. She refused to be anything but proud of her husband who had enlisted and served with honor. He was awarded with a Bronze Star with Valor, you know, posthumously, for his actions. I felt like she should have been really mad at me and upset at me. And, you know, there was a lot of guilt there for a long time. I didn't really - you know, I didn't go to their funerals. I never followed up with it. Even in the piece, when it was written, I had never - you know, you just kind of moved on, and that was that.
MARTIN: But, eventually, you did connect with them. You talked with them. You did eventually connect and learn about what he did, and so forth. And I think that the question a lot of people have is, you know, we've been there 10 years. Do you feel we accomplished something?
DIBATTISTA: For me, you know, I don't really have the luxury of waxing poetic about was the war worth it, was it not. It's much more personal than that, since I was there and I was on the frontlines. And, you know, I sacrificed over a year of my life for the Iraqi people, and other people did, too. I'm not trying to talk anybody or change any opinions. This is just how I look at the war.
Whether or not Iraq becomes a stable democracy - which I hope it does, and remains that way - I helped give children, other people an opportunity to have freedom. I helped them build schools. I helped them manage their security, their governance, made sure they had fuel, water, food, power - all the things you need for a successful infrastructure. That was different from the environment that they were living in beforehand. Again, this isn't me, you know, with an American flag on my back swaying, you know, beating down the opposition. That's just the only way I can choose to look at it. We gave them an opportunity, sometimes, you know, just like with me in education. I can't change people. I can just give them the incentive to want to do better. And that's up to them.
MARTIN: How do you think your service informed what you're doing now? As I mentioned, you are a professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County. I kind of want to say thank you for your service for that, too. Do you think that your time in the war informs what you're doing now? And if so, how?
DIBATTISTA: It informs everything I did. It's natural that a lot of veterans go through community college when they get out, especially with the post-9/11 GI Bill. You know, when you're not in college for four years, you've got to go back and get some of the skills you lost, and a good place for that is community college.
But I also - you know, this sounds so trite and cliché, but I do believe in the power of writing. I believe in the power of literature. Good writing is a gift. You're giving somebody a new experience, a new way of thinking, a new understanding that they wouldn't have beforehand and, like this one, I was teaching my students a book of war poetry called "Shortly Thereafter" by my bud, Colin Halloran. And they're going to read it and, whether they have an opinion on the war or not, which a lot of them don't because 99 percent of the people in America have not served in Iraq or Afghanistan, they will have some sense of it as, like. And he's going to come down, he's going to talk to them and I hope it's a great experience for them.
MARTIN: Do you feel that the country appreciates you and what you did and you and your colleagues did?
DIBATTISTA: I think so, but this is something I talk about a lot with civilians. There's this weird connection. You know, there's this - we want to understand, but we don't know how we can understand and there's the obligatory thank-yous, but there's this weird barrier that builds between that. How do you appropriately thank somebody? When is too much too much? What questions can you ask? What can't you ask?
I think people are generally supportive. They're able to dissociate the actual policies from the actual soldiers, which they weren't able to do in years past. Obviously, Vietnam. So - yes - I think they do, but I think they're not sure about how to appropriately thank and support.
MARTIN: I understand you're just speaking for yourself and I appreciate that, but I would like to ask, on this anniversary, how would you like your fellow Americans to think about this war, just from your perspective?
DIBATTISTA: So I've written a lot about my experiences. My book is called, "Go Now, You Are Forgiven." That's a little elusion to a famous dispatch song, which is basically about - listen, we've been fighting wars. We've been doing these things. Some mistakes were made. We need to learn lessons from those and just move on. That's all you can do with whatever you have in life, whether you've served in war, you've gone through a bad breakup, made some financial mistakes, whatever it is. There's lessons that are gained from that and, at some point, you have to acknowledge those lessons, accept your fault in those, and take that lesson and move on. And that's what I would want the American people to think about the war and the people who have served.
They were men and women who did for the democratic process what we asked them to do. Here we are, 10 years later, we still have troops in harm's way, for what I would deem nebulous reasons, to be blunt. And I think we need to understand that these things are real. There's a serious human cost and we need to remember that lesson moving forward.
MARTIN: That was retired Marine Corporal Dario DiBattista. He is now an adjunct professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. His forthcoming memoir is titled "Go Now, You Are Forgiven."
Corporal, professor, thank you so much for joining us.
DIBATTISTA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Our very best to you.
DIBATTISTA: Thank you for having me, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Coming up, you've heard about the role of social media in the Arab Spring, but what you might not have heard about is another source of inspiration for protestors, especially in Libya.
KHALED M: I think Tupac really represented a struggle, trying to come up out of your environment and be something bigger and, you know, that's something that all of the youth in Libya can relate to.
MARTIN: We'll talk with a Libyan-American rapper about why Tupac lives in Libya - or at least his music does. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.