Faithful to the grunt's story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While David Danelo was in Iraq two years ago, he was "one of those guys" who wrote home about once a month to let friends and family know how things were going.

As a Marine Corps captain in Fallujah -- an insurgent stronghold in the Sunni triangle -- he had plenty to say in his "updates from the front."

The e-mails were passed around by friends and family and eventually caught the eye of Steven Pressfield, the author of Gates of Fire. The historical novel chronicles the Battle of Thermopylae, during which about 7,000 Greek allies held off millions of Persians in a mountain pass for three days in 480 B.C.

Pressfield, whose work is popular with Marines, told Danelo he was a good writer, which made the young captain feel like "Babe Ruth had just told me I was a good baseball player." Through Pressfield and others, Danelo got a literary agent and "made a commitment to enjoy writing as much as I enjoyed being a Marine."

A 1998 Naval Academy graduate, Danelo was in Annapolis over the weekend to show off the fruits of that commitment: Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq, his first book. The story focuses on several noncommissioned officers -- or enlisted leaders -- and the snap decisions they made under pressure in Fallujah about the time Danelo was there, between February and September 2004.

In finishing the book, Danelo has joined a number of Marine combat veterans and academy grads who, after learning the way of the sword, took up the proverbially mightier pen.

While sheepish about his place among these writers -- Danelo insists he is a novice -- he's happy to contribute to a canon of books beloved among military service members. Though it isn't always celebrated, the academy and the military have a strong literary culture, Danelo said, one that makes the transition from warrior to writer a smaller leap than one might think.

Danelo said he decided to focus on noncommissioned officers -- or "NCOs" -- after a conversation with James Webb, another former combat Marine and academy graduate who took to writing. Webb, a Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate in Virginia, told him to write only what he knew. That advice helped him realize "that I didn't have a responsibility to be anything more than I am at this point." Given his experiences in Iraq, Danelo decided to write a book about Iraq through the eyes of "the grunts."

Many of the strongest passages focus on the Marines and their efforts to deal with the war and win over Iraqis in a dangerous area.

One passage captures the collective sentiments of "grunts" as they awaited a second tour in Iraq, standing in formation while a ranking officer asked how they are doing.

"How are we doing, sir? Tired -- it's February 2004, and we've been either fighting or training for a year. Now we have to go back and do the Army's job for them. How are we doing, sir? Angry -- we didn't join the Marine Corps to be peacekeepers. We joined because we wanted to kill. How are we doing, sir? Envious -- most Americans our age are getting either drunk or laid in bars or dorm rooms every night, and we're heading to Iraq for our second tour. Don't these people give a [expletive] that we're at war."

One of Danelo's first attempts to write professionally prompted his meeting with Webb.

After a trip to Vietnam with his former roommate at the Naval Academy, Danelo came home and wanted to write about it. Seeking advice, he e-mailed Webb, former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration and author of Fields of Fire, a best-seller about Vietnam.

Danelo took a quote from Webb's response and posted it on his computer: "A writer's responsibility is to speak honestly regardless of the cost. Without that, he is simply a propagandist for one side or the other."

That is a fitting mantra for Webb, who in his career has taken fiercely independent positions on issues such as women at the academy and honor. Danelo said that when he was a midshipman, he and others idolized Webb, a war hero in Vietnam who wrote A Sense of Honor about the academy. During his time at the academy, Danelo said officials urged Mids not to read the 1981 novel. That only made them want to read it more.

Webb pointed out some errors in what Danelo eventually wrote and offered to have lunch with him to correct them. Although the piece was published only online in English and in a Vietnamese newspaper, it sparked in Danelo the fervor for writing.

Now residing in northeastern Pennsylvania near Wilkes Barre with his wife, Danelo, 30, recently became the editor of uscavon point.com, an online counterterrorism journal for military and law enforcement professionals.

He has recently completed several assignments for Proceedings, the monthly magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, which is edited by Robert Timberg, another academy grad, Marine combat veteran and writer.

Timberg, whose book The Nightingale's Song chronicled how the war in Vietnam affected the lives of five academy graduates and their actions in the Reagan administration, sent Danelo to cover how sailors were helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. More recently, he went to the Horn of Africa, a first for Proceedings, Timberg said.

"Dave is a really talented kid," said Timberg, a former reporter and editor for The Sun. "He's a good writer, enthusiastic and energetic and indefatigable. He's ready to go anywhere, any time, any place."

Now, with his first book out, Danelo is cautious about making any "political" statements, and when asked what's next for Iraq or whether he supports the war, he says he doesn't know.

"I don't feel the need to be an apologist for the war or to be a demonstrator against the war, either," Danelo said. "That's not what I'm here to do. I firmly believe that the guys who volunteer to serve this country represent a sacred and precious resource, and I want to be an advocate for them and a voice for them.

"To do it, I need their story, and to learn it, and to tell it."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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