Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Matthew Dillon remembered by brothers

They are brothers — brothers bonded to each other in a way you might see in a movie — except their connection is real.

Robert, Mike and Matt Dillon. They could be on opposite sides of the U.S. or even overseas, and the three men would find a way to talk on the phone as often as possible. They talk about their day or their work and in recent years, they've started talking about the future, maybe starting their own business together someday, just so they could enjoy the rest of their lives and continue the bond they all feel.

They like cutting up with each other too, often driving their parents, Neal and Lucy Dillon, to distraction. Matt is a likable guy, making friends with people as soon as he meets them. As he and Mike walked in the backyard of their parents' home in Aiken Saturday, Robert said if Matt was there, he'd have everybody cracking up.

But Matt isn't there. Last Monday he was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Ambar province of Iraq. This wasn't supposed to happen, Mike said. After all, Matt had already been to Iraq in 2003-2004 with the Army National Guard's 122nd Engineer Battalion out of Graniteville. He had been wounded and received a Purple Heart. Surely nothing could happen on his second tour.

"He's been to combat," said Robert. "I know how meticulous he is. What are the chances of getting hit twice by a roadside bomb? It's like lightning striking twice."

Yet it did and now Mike and Robert and their families and other relatives are at their parents' home, waiting for a military flight to bring Matt to Columbia and then home to Aiken.

Maybe the worst thing was that Matt was the youngest at 25, just two weeks shy of his 26th birthday. Mike is four years older and Robert 14. OK, technically Robert is their half-brother. After his parents divorced, he lived with his mom and stepdad. But Robert was around on weekends and holidays and summer vacation, and Mike and Matt never thought of him as anything other than the big brother they idolized.

The younger boys were inseparable, but Mike said with a smile that was because Matt would never leave him alone. Mike would ride his bike with his friends, and he would look around and there was Matt catching up with them. Mike would tell Matt firmly to go home and Matt would start back. But moments later he would ride up behind them again.

Clearly, Matt had an independent streak, even as a little kid. Once he woke his brother up at 6:30 a.m.,demanding that he play with him. But Mike wouldn't budge and Matt went downstairs. He found a meat tenderizer and hit Mike in the face with it.

Robert loved the kids when they were small. He brought a girlfriend home from college once, and the boys went with them when they drove to a family event.

"Matt and Mike were singing Christmas carols," Robert said. "They sang for 100 miles. They were really characters."

By then, Robert was in ROTC, preparing for a commission as an army officer and to become a military policeman. Of course, his hair was short. When he got married for the first time at 22, the younger boys were wearing their hair rather long at the time. Before the wedding, Mike and Matt got their mother to take them to a barbershop so they could get haircuts to look just like Robert's. They respected him so much, Mike said, perhaps more intent on pleasing Robert than their dad at times. Robert was always on a pedestal.

Robert stayed in the army and is now a lieutenant colonel. Both boys did ROTC in high school, much to Robert's delight. Mike tried college and was struggling and decided to go out on his own and grow up a little bit. He talked to marine recruiters and they didn't give him any bull, telling him what he could expect and what they could do for him. So he joined the marines and served four years and is now a police officer in Riverside, Calif.

Robert attended Mike's graduation at Parris Island and swelled with pride. He had begun leaning on both brothers pretty hard, urging them to achieve to their highest potential. The younger guys were getting older, and they began having more adult, professional conversations.

Of course, Mike wasn't quite ready to declare Matt a grown-up. Matt had gone to Augusta State University to study business management. Eventually he decided he didn't want his parents to pay his way, so he joined the National Guard unit, much to his brothers' surprise.

"I always thought he looked up to Rob, because I did too," he said. "But other people told me he looked up to me too. I never thought he would want to do the same thing I did."

Matt had joined the Guard at a time when the possibility of the U.S. going to Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was escalating. A few months later, the unit was activated and went overseas in February 2003.

Robert was serving in Iraq too, the second in command of an MP battalion. Mike was out of the military by then and had married and had a baby and was working as a deputy sheriff. He was freaked out that his brothers were going to war. He was ready to go back to active duty, but his wife and Robert managed to talk him out of it. Mike couldn't get it out of his head that he should have been in Iraq with his brothers.

In December 2003 Robert managed to arrange for Matt to spend four days with him in Baghdad. They had a great time, attending a Christmas Eve service. The next day, Robert participated in the traditional practice when officers serve dinner to the enlisted men on Christmas Day. Matt joined him behind the counter. When Matt returned to his unit, he still had three months before the end of his tour. It was hard to watch him go, Robert said, because Matt still was his little brother.

Matt looked up to his brothers as heroes. But Robert said he and Mike had joined the military when the country was not at war. Matt had volunteered for the National Guard and served a year in Iraq and had been wounded and that was enough.

That's what Mike and Robert thought, anyway. Matt had a different idea and quietly enlisted in the Marine Corps with the goal of becoming an MP like Robert. His brothers were truly shocked. Matt could have chosen any of the other services and carried his rank and not be required to go through basic training. Instead, he chose the marines, where he would lose his rank and have to go to Parris Island.

Matt had high standards and quite frankly, Robert said, only the Marine Corps could come up to those standards. He wasn't proving anything to his brothers. He was proving something to himself. Matt found what he was looking for, said Mike. He appreciated the professionalism, and the way the guys carried themselves was the way he carried himself.

Before being shipped out, Matt was stationed in California for about 18 months. All three brothers bought the same cell phone plan to talk with each other on a daily basis. The best part for Mike was that Matt would visit him on weekends. Matt was interested in becoming a police officer too after his military obligation and did some ride-alongs with Mike and sat in on some formal briefings.

They relished the chance to just be with each other. Mike clings to that memory, that he got to hang out with his little brother. It was like being kids again and sharing the same bedroom. Matt admitted to Mike that he was scared. If he wasn't scared, Mike said, there would be something wrong with him.

Matt arrived in Iraq in September. He would talk to his parents and tell them everything was fine, because he didn't want them to worry. He admitted to Robert and Mike that his unit was going on more dangerous and longer missions. Then Matt would make a joke about it, saying he was more worried about army personnel shooting him than the other guys.

As a career officer, Robert was ramrod-straight as he sat in a living room chair Saturday. But he sagged a bit as he pondered those "other guys" and their counter-insurgency tactics. The normal processes of war are gone, replaced by an enemy that is developing more ingenious ways to hide its Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

"How do you defend yourself against an enemy who is willing to die?" Robert said.

He and Mike can't help but play the "what if" game. What if he hadn't joined the military as his brothers did? What if Mike could transport himself to Matt's outfit before that last mission and tell him to get sick that day?

In the end it wouldn't have changed anything. Matt's decisions for his future were made when he joined the National Guard and then the Marine Corps, Robert said.

Critics have suggested that too many Americans haven't made any sacrifices, haven't gotten involved in the war. But those critics haven't visited the Dillons' home, where so many friends have come in support, where complete strangers are offering to help in any way they can. That's the reality, Robert said.

Earlier this week, a delayed flight, weather and other problems delayed his trip to Aiken. He spent hours at the airport, unable to grieve while surrounded by so many people. He wasn't coping well at all until he arrived at his parents' home and could get with Mike and draw strength from him.

"Matt's soul has honor and integrity in it," said Robert. "When I heard that Matt had died, part of me died too."

They had those plans, all three of them, to find a way to be together and grow old together, said Mike. He and Robert knew that Matt was going to accomplish great things.

"Now that part of our life is gone," Mike said.

From the Aiken Standard

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Matthew V. Dillon killed in combat