For Dominic Spadaro, it’s the people who give his service meaning.
In his 10-year career in the United States Army, the retired captain deployed to Iraq where he led more than 100 combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In 1997, Spadaro, a transplant from southern California, earned an opportunity to play football for The United States Military Academy at West Point, upon graduating from high school.
His decision to honor his long-standing family history of Army service.
“I’m a son of the American Revolution on both my mom’s [parents] side,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to be able to say I’ve had family members fight in and live through every American war since the American Revolution.”
After West Point, Spadaro ventured into Army field artillery and served for five years. He was then deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004, and served until 2007.
“It was kind of like the wild, wild west over there in that point in time.”
He remembers the first wave of the invasion took place as they were landing in the country. As an artillery unit, they ended up conducting convoy security escort missions along with a guard mission on the largest and most supplied depot in Iraq.
At one point during his deployment, two soldiers in Spadaro’s sister battalion were kidnapped and his battalion conducted a 10-mile radius house-to-house search and seizure for the missing members over the course of three days. The final day of the search, they discovered boots sticking out from under a pile of hay on a side road. The two soldiers had been killed.
“Veterans Day, for me, means a lot,” he said on a recent morning. “I think about all the guys I served with and all of my family members that came before me.”
“I like the idea of just taking a few minutes to listen to somebody’s story, I think that’s especially important, and I get very emotional about Vietnam veterans,” Spadaro said.
The Vietnam Veterans of America were the only group — without fail — to be at the airport to send off or welcome back Spadaro and his fellow soldiers from deployments.
“They were there to hug us and say ‘you guys are our heroes’ and ‘you’re our brothers,’” Spadaro said, choking up with emotion. “And they didn’t have that. They came home to a lot of crap and there’s a lot of them that are still hurting.”
All veterans, and especially those who served in the Vietnam War, carry memories and baggage that won’t ever make it to the ears of another.
“This [holiday] is an opportunity, I think we as Americans have, to make that right and I hope everyone takes a moment on Veterans Day to find a Vietnam veteran, especially, and give them a hug.”
When Spadaro returned from Iraq, his father-in-law, who was a tunnel rat in Vietnam, spent three days sharing every detail from his entire time in the service, details he had never told another person in his life.
“He felt like I could finally understand, so that’s why he told me,” he said, noting his uncle’s Purple Heart medal and numerous near-death injuries.
The greatest honor of serving is not in the form of awards and accolades earned, but through the indestructible relationships that derive from war.
Or in the form of a 1993 Ford Ranger pickup.
Cesar Arreola served overseas with Spadaro and worked as his assistant when Spadaro was an S4 officer.
Arreola grew up in El Paso, Texas, but was born in Mexico. Returning home from deployment, Arreloa ran into citizenship difficulties, which Spadaro helped sort out. He also encouraged Arreola to outline his life goals, map a way to accomplish them, and finish his education.
“This was a kid who grew up in a house that was made out of pallets that was a block away from the Rio Grande river that had a dirt floor and the running water they had was a from a hose at a neighbors house a quarter mile away,” Spadaro said of Arreola, who now owns an insurance agency in New Mexico.
The two stay in touch to this day, sharing a bond over a 1993 Ford Ranger, which Spadaro gifted to Arreola after the two spent endless hours working on the vehicle together.
“He still has it,” Spadaro said. “He still has that truck. Every Thanksgiving we talk and he calls me and says, ‘Hey sir, I still got the truck!’ and sends me pictures of it.”
Some bonds survive through memory.
Heading into his sophomore year at West Point, Spadaro blew out his knee, which ultimately ended his NCAA football career and induced an awful attitude, he said.
With some tough love, his squad leader at the time, David Bernstein, intently questioned Spadaro after hearing him complain at a practice, asking “Why are you here?”
“He broke me down,” Spadaro recalled. “He got to my heart, like he was looking into my soul with his eyes … Not only did he get me through that summer, but he checked on me for the next two years.”
Spadaro worked through his fears of failure and carried the lessons Bernstein taught him throughout his career.
“You start to feel like you’re invincible, like there’s nothing that could possibly get to you,” Spadaro said about his 2003 deployment to Iraq. On Oct. 18 that year, he was listening to the details of a battle update brief when the list of those killed in action that day included a familiar name. Lt. David Bernstein was killed during a raid, in which he saved the lives of two other soldiers.
“Part of what I try to do when I think about my life and the down moments is what would Dave do? What would Dave say right now?” Spadaro explained. “It’s stayed with me my entire adult life.”
The transition from service to civilian life was hard, Spadaro said. With an engineering degree from West Point and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the University of Oklahoma, Spadaro thought he had life in order. Spadaro is the area manager for BBSI Puget Sound Operations, a small business consulting company, in Federal Way.
“Things are just different …” he said. “The part I was really having a hard time with was letting myself be seen and letting my walls down. It was a knock-down, drag-out journey for the first couple years.”
Then, he discovered a TEDTalk by Dr. Brené Brown titled “The Power of Vulnerability.”
And it pinpointed Spadaro’s struggle. He was having difficulty connecting with people in a world of shallow and walled off professional relationships.
Without the shared experience, trust was difficult to develop with civilians, he said.
“You want to talk about being seen? You let yourself be seen with your soldiers. They know everything about you, you know everything about them.”
“That’s what brings meaning to my service … That’s why you put your life on the line. It’s for the people that are next to you, it’s those kind of relationships.”