Recruiting Norm Anderson

In 2002, Dario DiBattista convinced a strong-willed high school grad to join the Marine Corps. Three years later, he found himself face-to-face with the wife who lost him in battle.

By: Dario DiBattista

Victoria and Norm were high school sweethearts who married just before he left for Iraq. Photograph courtesy of the Anderson family

On a Wednesday night, I finished my shift at the restaurant a little early. That was good—it meant more time for drinking. I stopped at a coworker’s apartment to toss back shots of Jack Daniel’s. Sufficiently buzzed, I drove to the Treehouse, a bar near where I was living in the Baltimore suburbs.

The bartender stood in an opposite corner of the bar chatting with a pretty girl. On the TV above him, a story flashed about a Marine who had died. I tried to read the captions, but my mind was hazy and my eyes were tired. About a year had passed since I’d come home from Iraq in 2004.

The bartender came over without a newly poured beer. He stared at me, rubbing his palms. “Hey, Dario,” he said. “This woman over here just had her husband killed in Iraq. Could you . . . .” He didn’t need to finish.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

I took the long path toward her, curving around the length of the bar. I stepped beside her and she looked at me, confused. A few of her friends were with her; they watched me, too.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m a lance corporal in the Marines. I heard about your loss. I’m here for you.” She closed her eyes. Then she dropped her head into my chest and hugged me. I had no idea what I should do.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

The Marine Corps is small. There are only a few degrees of separation between any two people who wear the olive-drab green. There was a chance I knew her husband.

“Victoria Anderson,” she said. “My husband was Lance Corporal Norm Anderson.”

The first time I heard that name, in 2002, I was working as an aide at the Marine Recruiting Substation in Towson. When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, I had been attending Marine combat training. It seemed stupid to just be a reservist—the “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” warrior I had enlisted as during peacetime. With Afghanistan action under way, I wanted to fight.

I asked about volunteering for the infantry or any active-duty combat job, but my reserve unit in DC turned down those requests. So I took the only full-time Marine position I could find: recruiting assistant.

No one wanted to sign up for war in a mostly healthy economy. In my three months in the recruiting office, someone walked in asking to be a Marine only once. We found everyone else by dialing lists given to us by local schools, holding pull-up competitions or other events, wandering through malls and high schools, and giving incentives such as guaranteed promotions to the poolees—young men and women who had already decided to join—if they got their friends to enlist.

It was my job to make a first contact and get someone to set up an appointment with the recruiters. “Hey, dude, what is one hour of your time compared against the rest of your life?” I would ask. “We just want to give you some options for your future. How does that sound? I think it would be stupid to say no.”

Next: "In a place called Al Qa'im, he stopped a suicide bomber."

The sergeant major of the recruiting district called and chewed me out after the first week, in which I hadn’t set up any appointments. “Your goal is three appointments a week,” he said, nearly shouting into the phone. “You better square your ass away.” If I couldn’t succeed here, I wondered, how would I make it in the real Marine Corps?

“I think I have a friend who would want to join,” a poolee named Josh Snyder told me. I liked Josh, a cocky country boy who seemed wise beyond his years. I liked his swagger and wished I had been as confident as he was when I had joined.

“It’s my best friend, Norm,” Josh said. “He wants to join the Army, but I’m trying to get him to sign up with me.”

I decided that recruiting Norm would be my personal mission. After a recruiting event—a pull-up challenge at his high school—I talked to him alone for a long time in the recruiter’s office, the fluorescent lights making my dress uniform almost glow.

Norm said he wanted to join the Army to be like his father. He towered over me, but I dominated our conversation with a playbook of sales techniques. “Why wouldn’t you want to be the best of the best?” I said. “Why would you want to go to war with the second string?” I knew he played football, and that analogy seemed to work. I coaxed him into being one of the few and the proud.

I left the recruiting office after three months on the job. Less than a year later, I started my first tour in Iraq.

When Victoria told me her husband’s name, I turned away from her and dropped my head into my hands.

“I recruited your husband,” I said when she tugged me around.

“It’s okay,” she said. Amazingly, she didn’t seem angered by my revelation and even tried to soothe me. “I’m proud of him and what he did.”

“What did he do?” I asked.

“He’s going to get the Bronze Star. In a place called Al Qa’im, he stopped a suicide bomber. He saved three lives by stepping in front of the vehicle and forcing him to use the bomb early.”

I had served in the same place about a year earlier, and her mention of Al Qa’im brought a scene rushing into my mind. A civilian vehicle, the size of a Toyota Tercel, zoomed toward me while my battalion patrolled along the Euphrates.

Iraqis are horrible drivers. I thought this vehicle was unlikely to be a suicide bomber. There wouldn’t be a lot of room to pack explosives into such a compact car, and I could see people inside—it wouldn’t make sense to kill three or four bombers at once. I had heard that suicide bombers usually commandeered larger vehicles such as cargo vans and went on their missions alone.

“You’ve got a vehicle coming up your six!” my sergeant screamed at me over the hissing radio. “Shoot it, D-Bo, shoot it!” I fondled the trigger of the M240 Golf machine gun with my index finger. I didn’t want to kill civilians.

About 15 meters away, the car skidded to a stop, kicking up dust. The other Marines scrambled toward it with rifles raised and ripped out the passengers to search them. The Iraqis said they were just driving home, but they could have been testing us. The insurgents liked to observe how the Marines would act in a certain area and then craft their plans accordingly. Someone—an observer near our patrol or one of the men in that car—would report my inaction to the enemy’s leadership. They were always watching for weakness.

I didn’t have the right to make the choice I did—by not shooting, I decided that the Iraqis’ blood was more important than ours. That was unfair to the other Marines’ families, friends, and wives.

There were many suicide attacks after my battalion left. One of the combat photographers on my team who stayed behind died after a suicide bomber crashed into his Humvee. A few months after that, a base on the edge of Al Qa’im, near the Syrian border, endured three consecutive bomber attacks in a few minutes, including a fire truck that crashed against the base with several hundred pounds of explosives. A lone lance corporal caused all three bombers to detonate prematurely by shooting at them with his M249 SAW machine gun.

And now the attack against Norm. I couldn’t help but think these were all somehow connected to what I did not do—I did not kill like a good Marine.

Next: Josh is killed in a sniper attack.

Author Dario DiBattista

Victoria and I talked for hours. Her thoughts were fixated on Cindy Sheehan, an antiwar activist whose son had died in combat in Iraq. Victoria cursed Sheehan for protesting the war, using the private pain of her lost son as a torch. Victoria thought Sheehan’s crusade had cheapened the memory of our nation’s war dead. “He made his choice,” Victoria said of her husband. “He did what he loved and saved others’ lives.”

Victoria and Norm had been high-school sweethearts, but Norm had kept a distance from her after joining the Marines. They only married just before he left. Victoria now understood why he had pushed her away for so long. He had wanted to save her from this heartache. But she was happy that they were married, if only for a few months. “I can have that memory for as long as I live,” she said. I had never before seen someone smile and cry at the same time.

Victoria and I exchanged numbers before we left that night. It made sense to give each other a lifeline. A few days later, she showed up at the restaurant where I waited tables, and this became a weekly routine. We never talked about Norm’s death or my combat experiences. She was just checking in on me and, in a weird way, I was counseling her. It seemed that none of the other people in her life could understand the isolation and pain of losing someone they loved in combat.

She told me about her customer-service job at a BMW dealership and her plans for the future. I talked about going out and partying. In several months, I would be in Iraq again, so I had no other goals. We also talked about relationships. My girlfriend had left me when I returned home—I had scared her away with my intensity and self-destruction—but I felt inspired by Victoria’s love for Norm. Maybe I could recover and reach out to someone, even if I did deploy again. I wanted to know how.

A few weeks after our first meeting, she came into the restaurant early in the afternoon and started drinking hard. A couple of empty cocktail glasses were on her table by the time I walked over. “Josh is dead, too,” Victoria said—a sniper had killed him. Another person I had helped enlist was gone.

I remembered when I first met Josh. As a recruiting assistant, I had traveled to his cousin’s small house—she was considering enlisting—in the woods of the rural part of Baltimore County. He was there, too. “Do you want to shoot something?” he asked, pointing to the large field just beyond her home. I knew then he would make a good Marine.

I ended my shift as quickly as I could, but Victoria was gone by the time I returned. I went back to the Treehouse to get drunk.

I couldn’t bring myself to attend either of their funerals. I’ve never visited their graves or the high-school football field they once played on or the memorial of their wall-mounted jerseys with the retired numbers 26 and 33. I don’t even like to remember their existence—though when I do, I remember them as heroes.

I never sought out Victoria again. Facing her would mean reliving all the trauma. She never contacted me again, either.

People tell me I didn’t do anything wrong and I shouldn’t feel responsible for Josh and Norm’s deaths. But I did make mistakes—both as a Marine and as a civilian.

I’m in graduate school now, and I do some substitute teaching on the side. An automated call came for me yesterday. A voice recording asked if I wanted to teach an English class at Hereford High, Josh and Norm’s alma mater. I held the phone with a shaking hand. The question kept repeating: “If you want to accept this assignment, press one. . . . If you want to accept this assignment, press one. . . . If you want to accept this assignment, press one. . . .”

After two minutes, it hung up on me.

For information on the memorial fund in honor of Norman Anderson and Joshua Snyder, visit anderson-snyder.info.

This article appears in the May 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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