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thedrifter
08-21-06, 01:49 PM
Charleston Southern's DL: Iraq to Big South
August 21, 2006

Associated Press


NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Dennis Justiniani smiles easily when asked about football or making the move from his California home to the small Baptist-based college a continent away.

But ask about his time as a Marine in Iraq during the earliest days of the war and Justiniani turns hesitant, not wishing to relive his service or what he saw first hand with the First Force Service Support Group.

"I wouldn't know how to describe it exactly," he said.

Justiniani, 23, was in the war's opening push to Baghdad "behind the grunts" up front, he says.

A few convoys he was in took on fire, the bullets crashing off metal and equipment all around Justiniani. And while he made it through, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive lineman recalls the edginess of daily life in combat.

"It was anxiety," Justiniani said after a recent Charleston Southern practice. "I wasn't really nervous, because we were well prepared."

Justiniani wasn't prepared for much of anything coming out of Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif. He hoped to keep playing football, but didn't have the grades to continue.

"School wasn't my thing," he said. "I wasn't mature."

So he joined the Marines in 2001 for a three-year hitch. Justiniani watched with other servicemen as the World Trade Center fell after the 9/11 terror attacks and trained hard knowing he could soon be called into action.

Justiniani was sent to Iraq three months before U.S. forces began "Operation Iraqi Freedom." He and his fellow Marines slipped in behind the opening wave of troops, guarding convoys and supplies necessary to keep things moving.

When the firing began, Justiniani says he reacted like anyone trained for combat and shot back. "You don't have time to think," he said. "You hear the bullets coming down range and you try and hit somebody before they hit you."

Justiniani knows he found his mark several times, likely wounding or killing enemy soldiers. "I try not to think about it," he says.

After U.S. troops entered Baghdad and unseated Saddam Hussein, Justiniani's group was stationed outside the city. They wandered in to see the fallen Hussein statue and were greeted by Iraqis pleased to have the fallen leader's reign ended.

Still, soldiers had to be cautious about who they trusted or the consequences could be fatal. "We lost a couple of guys," Justiniani says quietly.

He returned to the Marine Corp Base at Camp Pendleton in California after six months of duty in the middle of 2003 and began thinking again about college football.

He joined Golden West College in Huntington Beach and played while finishing his time with the Marines.

Justiniani's coach there, Alex Gerke, saw a mature, fiery player who did not stop moving. "He's just one of those guys who was everywhere" on the field, said Gerke, now offensive coordinator at Weber State.

Charleston Southern coaches needed help on the defensive line and, when they saw film of Justiniani, thought he'd make a good fit.

Coach Jay Mills said he learned about Justiniani's time in the service early on and saw him as a potential leader for his Division I-AA team.

Justiniani hoped to let teammates find out gradually about his Iraq duties. But Mills told the players when introducing the new lineman.

As Mills had thought, the players were draw to Justiniani immediately.

"They respect what he stands for because he stands for the privileges that we enjoy as American citizens," Mills said. "It was a wonderful opportunity for our team to have a first-hand relationship with somebody that has served their county and fulfilled their duty that really all of us are obliged to do."

Justiniani patiently answered teammates' questions until everyone was satisfied. "They don't ask much any more," he said.

On the field, Justiniani will start when the Bucs open the season at Division II Presbyterian on Sept. 2.

Mills remembers after deciding that Justiniani would start, the coaches cut down the time he spent playing special teams to keep him fresh for defense. Justiniani went to Mills asking why the reduced role? "If the clock's running, he'd like to be on the field," Mills said.

Justiniani doesn't pay attention to reports of those Americans killed in Iraq. He doesn't view himself as a hero or someone who should be honored, just another in a long line of U.S. soldiers doing the job they were asked to do.

"I was just living another part of my life and that's what happened," he said. "I'm just blessed to have everything happen to me that's happened."

Ellie