He was a young man who poured every ounce of his energy into living. His mother, whose sadness has finally been lifted, now lights up when speaking of him. She takes pride in telling people how gifted he was and how those gifts could inspire such an array of emotions, though, she chuckles, not always in the best way. In a phone conversation from her Littleton home, she says, with a hint of pride, he could do---and master---anything he chose. But like so many creative children, he did not always make the best choices.
Danny Dietz, DJ to his family, showed amazing potential growing up in suburban Denver. He was, for example, artistic, showing both imagination and flair but more often showing it in places---public walls or buildings---that neither called for nor needed his ‘art.’ His mother, Cindy Dietz-Marsh, concedes that his artistic creativity and inspiration would probably have been better channeled in a different direction. But, fortunately, the trouble it may have caused never rose to a serious level. His luck was another gift.
But no amount of skill or luck was anywhere to be found when, in June 2005, Dietz and three fellow Navy SEAL comrades’ mission ended badly in a hilly region of Afghanistan. There, while stalking a Taliban commander, something went wrong and, in an instant, predator became prey. Outnumbered, outflanked and overwhelmed, Dietz and two SEALs were killed. A Navy Chinook helicopter dispatched to rescue and retrieve the SEAL squad was shot down by the Taliban. Eight more SEALs along with eight Army Night Stalkers, elite special operations forces, were also killed.
Dietz, who took great pride in his Latino and German heritage, is a central part of the story in “Lone Survivor,” a just released movie starring Mark Wahlberg. The movie, now playing nationwide, is based on the book of the same name and written by Marcus Luttrell, one of Dietz SEAL comrades on the ill-fated “Operation Redwing.”
With broken heart mending, Dietz’ mother remains intensely proud of her son who she says loved what he was doing and full well understood its potential consequences. But while her son understood the hazards of SEAL life, the Navy’s pinnacle sea, air, land special forces unit, she did not, at least initially. “I personally didn’t understand the meaning and extent of what a SEAL was until after my son was killed.”
Not anyone can be a SEAL. In fact, more than eighty percent of SEAL candidates never pin on the coveted SEAL insignia, an eagle clutching a pistol and trident. But, as his mother recalls, becoming one of the Navy’s elite was inevitable. “He was rambunctious, full of energy as a toddler,” she says. “He walked at nine months, was potty trained at eleven months and learned to ride a bike at five.” Mentally Dietz graded out, his mother says, “as genius.” Physically, Dietz was also the perfect candidate. “He wanted to be a ninja. When he realized ninja was something he couldn’t be, he became a SEAL. He lived in adventure.”
Unlike many, Dietz went straight from basic training to BUDS, basic underwater demolition training. It was rare for a new recruit, but he excelled. In another phase of SEAL training, Dietz did what few others have ever done. At the SEALs’ FEAR school, where candidates learn to search and evade, Dietz evaded capture and, amazingly, captured two training instructors stalking him.
Dietz was just the kind of candidate the Navy and the SEALs are looking for as it addresses diversity in its ranks. It has been on a national public relations tour focusing on minority high school athletes. A team of SEALs visits the school where it goes through routine physical training. The SEALs also hand out literature and spend individual time with any young man who might make a good candidate.
Becoming a SEAL, however, does not divorce the individual from reality. And the reality that each lives with is that each mission could be the last. Another reality is that a fatal mission signals the start of another long and painful one for those left behind.
“I remember when we got the phone call,” recalls Dietz-Marsh. It was from DJ’s new bride who had been called first. Later, with the family gathered at Navy SEALs headquarters in Virginia Beach, the news was confirmed. “I didn’t really believe it. I just remember collapsing,” she says. “I was devastated; I could not even think.”
Dietz was given full military honors and is buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery. For his duty, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the military’s second highest honor “for extraordinary heroism for actions against the enemy.”
Dietz-Marsh could have selected Arlington National Cemetery for her son “but I wanted our son home with us and I knew he wanted to be home with us.” His grave now sits silently among fellow comrades, marked only with a simple white marble headstone.
Dietz-Marsh has given her endorsement to the film version of “Lone Survivor,” despite her strong reluctance to not see it. “I actually was dreading seeing the movie,” she says. But she and her family, including a daughter, Tiffany Bitz, who remains active with the Danny Dietz Leadership and Training Foundation, met with Emile Hirsch, the actor who portrays her son, and gradually became more comfortable with the idea.
“I had read the after action report,” she says. “You think you know what happened,” she says, “but you don’t have a complete visual.” Seeing it, though, provided the visual and also reignited memories. “I was devastated. A piece of me died on that mountain with my son; a piece of my heart died.”
Dietz-Marsh says the grief of her family’s loss was a four-year fall to rock bottom. “I learned there’s a purpose for me to be here,” she says today. Her son’s foundation, which works with training and mentoring at-risk youth, has also helped move her to a better place.
Her former husband and her son’s father, Dan, has also been part of regaining the balance that was lost in June 2005. They have supported one another and their son’s foundation. They have also remained connected with their son’s alma mater, Heritage High School, where DJ has become a part of the school’s foundation.
“What impressed me most about Danny is that even as an eighth-grader, he knew he wanted to be a Navy SEAL,” remembers Mike Griebel, Heritage faculty member and the school’s long time football coach. “It didn’t matter to him if he had a four-year (college) diploma. His mentality was ‘I’m gonna get through high school and do what I want to do.’ Danny chose his own way.”
Heritage High School and Griebel have made it a point to keep Dietz’ memory alive. Each year the team wears a SEAL-like decal on their helmets. Another team tradition is touching a special stone memorializing Dietz before and after each practice. He also suggests his players read “Lone Survivor” to get a better idea of what heart and commitment mean in real life.
A statue of Dietz sits in Littleton’s Berry Park. He is depicted at full readiness. The statue initially was controversial because a number of people thought the automatic weapon in his hands was a glorification of violence. The city council ruled otherwise.
Danny Dietz would have celebrated his 34th birthday on Jan. 26th. There will be no celebration. Instead his family will mark the day with a peaceful visit to Fort Logan National Cemetery as they do every year.