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thedrifter
06-10-07, 09:07 AM
Marine jumped at chance to serve

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published June 10, 2007

It's hard to imagine a more dramatic change of scenery.

One day, Tom Castriota was selling Chevys at his dealership on U.S 19 in Hudson. Weeks later, the 54-year-old father of two was wearing a helmet and body armor and ducking mortars and rockets in Baghdad's Green Zone. At the dealership, a bad day is when no customers show up. In Iraq, a good day is one without American casualties.

For Castriota, this is about patriotism and service, though some would question his sanity.

To understand why he went, you'd have to hear his account of visiting a hospital to see seven Marines wounded by a car bomb. As the young men emerged from surgery, each was concerned only about his comrades in arms.

"The squad leader was in and out of consciousness, but all he wanted to know was if he had lost any squad members," Castriota said.

That selflessness is the Marines' way. Clearly, Castriota still lives and breathes it.

He served 26 years in the Marines - active duty and the reserve. He retired nine months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But that brazen assault on America just made him eager to get back in uniform.

For years, though, the military brass didn't seem to have any use for an aging Marine. Then the e-mail arrived Oct. 20, summoning him to active duty. He never wavered. Anita, his wife of 24 years, could run the dealership. He wanted to serve. This was a just fight.

For six months, Marine Lt. Col. Castriota lived in cramped trailers while stationed in the Green Zone. He was assigned to the Multi-National Security Transition Command, which coordinated the training of the Iraqi army, police and VIP security. Twice a week, he briefed Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, on the progress of the training.

Running his own business was easy compared with those six months. From 7 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., seven days a week, he worked alongside Australians, Albanians, Britons and Iraqis. Those long hours fostered a strong bond between allies trying to fix the broken country.

That made leaving tough. He felt sort of guilty, like leaving comrades behind.

"I felt I let them down," he said. "There's more to accomplish."

Two Iraqi generals wanted to know why he was leaving so quickly.

"I have to go home, guys," he told them. "My family is calling. When your time is up, you have to go."

Castriota told the story while seated in his office Friday afternoon at the dealership. He reports for duty at MacDill Air Force Base on Tuesday. He'll remain on active duty until the end of the month or through September. He hasn't decided yet. There is a project the military wants him to complete.

"Depends on my wife," he joked.

Actually, she has been supportive. She organized a shipment of 600 pounds of personal hygiene items for the troops while he was in Iraq.

To keep his friends and well-wishers up to date with his assignment, Castriota filed a series of dispatches from Iraq to the Pasco Tribune talking about a soldier's life in the Green Zone, living with daily mortar and rocket attacks.

You couldn't miss his guarded optimism, his determination. Six months in Iraq hasn't changed that.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

Ellie