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A Las Vegas Iraq War Veteran Talks Tragedy, Humanitarian Aid

iraq-2003.jpg
Laurent Rebours/AP
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A scene from the early days of the fighting in Iraq in the spring of 2003. In one incident, three members of an Iraqi family were killed. A U.S. Marine involved in the shooting recently tracked down the family to ask for forgiveness.

How do you apologize for an act that could have been easily lost in the fog of war?

That was the question Dexter Filkins examined several years ago in the New Yorker magazine through the story of Lu Lobello.

You see the Las Vegas native while in Iraq was part of a unit that mistakenly killed three civilians in a family of nine.

But years later, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lobello began looking for answers only to find some of them when he found the family that he has shot at in Iraq.  Filkins details that encounter in his 2003 article for the New York Times.

Today, Lu Lobello is running his own non-profit providing aid to conflict areas.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

This happened in a millisecond. You shot then you realized it was a mistake then you tried to rescue them. Did you rescue them?

 

We did. But I’m very sensitive when it comes to the words that are used to describe my experience and what we went through. There’s been this overarching theme of atonement attached to my story and I blame myself for not taking charge and writing more in the beginning. However, it wasn’t a mistake. We intentionally shot them, not maliciously. We purposely shot them.

Do you have contact with the family?

“I see them as much as I can. I talk to them at least once a week. They’re my family. I would do anything for them. It’s even progressed to the point where I’ll go pick up their kids with them.”

“I go over there and there’s a portrait of Edmund, Nicholas and James on the wall that I look at when we sit there and eat and joke. It’s one of the most comfortable real relationships I have.”

"As soon as I found them after that five years and that mission so to speak was over, it kind of started making sense to me. I changed my narrative. I don’t have to explain to people when they ask how the war was simply that it was this tragic story and it ended April 8, 2003. Now, when I tell people about what happened and my experience in war, I can’t expand it and say ‘…then I found this family and small world paradox and social media is really changing things. Look, it’s going to change warfare.'"

What does Squadbay do?

Everything. Our primary mission is to help. It made me feel so much better after I found the family. A week after that Typhoon Yolanda hit. I was with another vet. So my weekend consisted of bringing two other guys from April 8 th and that fire fight that shot the family to meet the family.

So now I got to transcend just my own personal story, and say, ‘now I’m going to help give this feeling to you Kenny. Come with me, meet the family, get over it. They don’t hate you. They know you’re only human. We were just kids caught in some bigger wheel. So come with me.’

I go with him. Three days later we’re back in San Diego with [a corpsman who served with Lobello in Iraq] who says, ‘my family is back in the Philippines. They just got hit. It’s the largest recorded storm in history. We just looked at each other and everyone just realized, ‘we’re going to the Philippines now.’  

It was that first trip that really taught me that there is another way to hold onto the past. There is another way to look toward the future. And that I can manifest whatever lifestyle I want because I found the family that I harmed in Iraq. It was an odd unlocking of some super power that I felt that I had.

What are you doing in Kurdistan?

“We’re writing quick impact project proposes to U.S.A.I.D. to institute a mobile medical clinic so that we can serve a static population of refugees inside the city limits. We’re trying to apply to create these field grade medical hospitals. They can serve the large camps of 10,000 people, 20,000 people. There are 9 million refugees that left Syria. We’re also trying to provide economic development.”

What do the refugees you’re working with need?

There is a breadth of difference between some of the camps. So, some camps still need stuff like warming layers and boots and clothes and more food. Other camps have progressed to the point where when you ask, ‘hey what do you need?’ Their response is: something to do. We need long term, chronic health care.   

Lobello recently delivered a UNLV forum lecture titled “War, Redemption, and the New State of International Aid.”

(Editor's Note: This interview originally aired Feb. 2015)

Lu Lobello, founder, Squadbay

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.