By Cpl. Melissa Tugwell
3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward)
AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – When another student mentioned ammunition and weapons in Dustin Blecha's senior year at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, Colo., Blecha overturned a desk, took cover behind it and pretended to be leading troops on a battlefield.
Teenage Blecha's passion for all things military suggested that his future included a uniform and a stint in basic training.
He describes his high school self as aggressive and high-strung – a young man who already knew he belonged on the battlefield.
"I was 'that guy', already wearing the cammie clothes and combat boots along with a military haircut in high school," he said.
Today "that guy" stands tall in his flight suit as a UH-1N Huey pilot with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).
After his high school graduation, Blecha headed to Norwich University, in Northfield, Vt., where he enthusiastically embraced the military world.
"It's a mindset that drove me to the military," said Blecha. "A lot of my decision to join the military had to do with perception and the way that I perceived the world and understood things."
The ROTC scholarship recipient decided that joining the corps of cadets at Norwich would help him develop as a leader and emulate the leaders he read about in history books.
During his first week of college, 'rook week', he stood in formation with the other freshmen in their tan slacks, white t-shirts and silly purple hats. For one moment he wondered what he'd gotten himself into and what would happen next.
"Hells Bells" by AC/DC blared from stereo speakers. A canon blasted and the freshmen began their lives as cadets. Cadres, as more senior cadets are known, descended on the freshmen.
"That was one of my most memorable weeks in that school," said Blecha. "Your whole world turns upside down."
During his sophomore year, Blecha chose to serve as a cadre.
"I thought training the freshman was awesome," he said with a smile. "It kept me in line and helped me to develop discipline.
"You have to set the standard with physical fitness and appearance and you have to set the standard with grades," he added.
Blecha was wearing a drill cover and "Hells Bells" had just ended when he met his future wife, Nicole Babis. Needless to say, the couple doesn't use words like romantic or sweet to describe their first meeting.
Nicole didn't care for Blecha much when she first met him.
"He was mean and gave the rooks a hard time," said Nicole, currently an Air Force first lieutenant serving as an operations officer with 4th Operations Support Squadron at Seymore Johnson Air Base in Goldsboro, N.C.
But he never gave up on the rooks, according to Nicole.
The couple began dating after Nicole had completed her first year at Norwich. Two years later when the couple wed, they walked into the reception hall to the tune of "Hells Bells."
"It was the first song we heard together," Nicole explained.
"At Norwich, he was all business and he always talked about military history and past battles," said Nicole. "After the 9/11 attacks, he talked about the future wars we would all be fighting."
Blecha graduated from Norwich in the spring of 2003 and earned his commission in the Marine Corps on May 10, 2003, and headed to Pensacola, Fla., to train as a helicopter pilot.
The 27-year-old has earned the call sign 'Francis' from the character of the 1981 movie "Stripes." His fellow pilots see Francis' enthusiasm for battle in Blecha.
"He's a very professional individual who doesn't get trapped up in minute details and is functionally-minded as well as mission-oriented," said Capt. Paul Barron, a friend and fellow pilot in HML/A-269. Barron has twice deployed with Blecha.
Blecha and his wife agree that he's adapted his aggressive passion for the military from mock battles behind overturned desks to a professional passion for being a pilot. Reining in 'that guy' has been no small feat and Blecha attributes much of his success to finding "the woman who could put up with a man like him."
When speaking of his family, comprised of his wife and their 3-year-old son, Blecha's pride and dedication is obvious.
When he was a cadre, Blecha believed the conduct of his platoon represented him as an instructor and as a person. He sees a similar connection in the relationship between parent and child.
"If they turned out bad, then I didn't do my job," said Blecha. "I would really like my mark on the world to be the conduct of my children."
Blecha will return home to his wife and child in early 2009.