First Sgt. Dan Malizzi went from being a soldier to protecting soldiers.
With his dad in the Air Force, Malizzi bounced around the Midwest during his early years — even lived for a time in Turkey — but eventually, he landed in the Nebraska Army National Guard. And what was meant to be a six-year stint turned into a 26-year-and-counting career.
“I’m kind of a loyalist,” chuckled the Gretna, Neb. resident. “You make and build relationships with people. You get that camaraderie, hanging out with soldiers. That’s what made me go full-time.
“No matter where you went, you had instant brothers and sisters and friends … (who) all worked toward a common goal.”
Malizzi has had a diverse military career — he was commissioned out of college in 1991, enlisted with the Iowa National Guard as a second lieutenant in 2000, then switched to the Nebraska National Guard and took command of a transportation unit. He spent one tour in Iraq as a truck master and a second as a platoon sergeant in logistics.
It was during that second deployment to Iraq when Malizzi earned his Purple Heart.
“Right as it got dark, the enemy forces launched a full series of large bombs … right around our building,” he recalled. “Our windows blew out, broke the doorways open, blew up fuel tanks and vehicles. A buddy of mine was out smoking a cigarette — he walked into the building and as he closed the door, the door was blown off its hinges.
“There were a lot of close calls. But no fatalities. It was unbelievable — I was up over my waist in craters in the ground (while later surveying the damage).”
Malizzi got lucky, too — no disabling injuries. He continued his work in the National Guard, and eventually — with an education background in health and fitness and a passion for helping others — he gravitated toward personnel administration.
Now, Malizzi fights the quiet battle of another frontline — the one soldiers face when they come home from war.
“Essentially, our job is to take care of soldiers,” he explained of his department at Joint Force Headquarters in Lincoln, Neb. “Part of my job is just being present, and getting out to be the face of the Guard. This job gives me the opportunity to stay (in the service) and converse with (soldiers and veterans).”
For Malizzi, participating in this year’s Flight of Honor means more than showing his respect to and remembrance of the fallen — it’s also about throwing a lifeline to soldiers still battling with demons. Soldiers he can help.
“I know there are soldiers out there hurting and in need of someone to talk to,” Malizzi explained. “I thought (the Purple Heart Flight) would be a good way to connect with other veterans and be a sounding board for them. Just being something positive in their life and knowing we are here for them.
“They’re good family people, they’re hard workers … and they feel a lot of pride in accomplishing their goals. Anything we can do for them … the National Guard isn’t big in Nebraska, it’s a family thing more than anything.”
Katy Moore can be reached at email@example.com.