It’s a long flight. The helicopter blades cut the deep night as Aaron Schilleci travels to celebrate the 28th birthday of his younger brother, Dan, on Oct. 6, 2006. The flight passes over the calm, wide valley of the Tigris, the flat expanse of desert, an oil pipeline and villages that soldiers like Aaron never enter.
The lights of Mosul — its 2 million inhabitants under curfew — rise up as the Apache touches down on the expansive airfield once manned by Saddam Hussein’s army. Aaron alights and gets on a phone. He is patched through to Dan.
“Hey what’s going on bro,” Aaron says. “Can you come pick me up?”
Dan, despite having spoken to his brother about the potential visit, is nonetheless surprised. “What? Are you kidding?”
“No, I’m here in Mosul,” Aaron replies.
Dan gets in his truck and drives to the airfield. This is the second of five times the two brothers from Valencia will get see one another during their 15 months in the war zone. For both, that connection becomes an invaluable shield against the horrors of war, as well as the lack of understanding they will find back in America.
Aaron and Dan, now 31 and 30, respectively, are the oldest of four Schilleci children. So close in age, the two brothers were always together as kids.
They shared friends, and after high school both moved to Van Nuys and studied history at UCLA, where they both joined the ROTC. Aaron was commissioned for active duty in the Army in 2001, and Dan moved on to join the Army Reserve in 2004.
Dan says he and his brothers, including younger brother Jacob, weren’t like most Jewish kids. All three played football in high school. All are big and athletic, and they come from a family with a military legacy. Their maternal grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Their paternal grandfather fought in the Navy in Vietnam.
Both Dan and Aaron describe their life in Valencia as solidly middle class. Their father worked as an engineer for Lockheed, and their mother was a real estate agent and worked for the family’s clothing import company. The Schilleci kids were far from spoiled. With four kids, Dan says, “there were too many of us to always get what we wanted.”
When the brothers met in 2006, it was only the second time in three years. The first had been on Yom Kippur in 2004, when Aaron was on holiday leave in the San Fernando Valley. The second was on the scorching deserts of the Middle East. By sheer coincidence, the two landed in Kuwait just over a week apart, Dan on July 15, 2006, and Aaron on the 25th.
“Our parents were in denial,” Aaron says. “At first they said, ‘You can’t take two of ours.’ But eventually, they came to the acceptance phase, where they had to deal with it, even if it sucks.”
Leaving the supportive world of friends and family for Kuwait was “like stepping into hell,” Aaron says, speaking from his current home base at Fort Bragg, N.C. “Imagine putting a hair dryer on your face and then throw some sand in front of it.” Despite the physical discomfort and the sinking feeling of knowing that 15 months of war lay before him, Aaron says he felt “empowered,” because his brother was nearby.
Both spent three weeks in Kuwait before heading into Iraq. Dan’s days were filled with training to oversee convoys, while Aaron spent time prepping helicopters and his men for battle.
“In that first week I would see Dan, and we would BS and talk about all kinds of stuff like we hadn’t done in ages,” Aaron says. “The connection was back.”
But after they crossed the border, the brothers wouldn’t have time to BS and smoke cigars. They were hundreds of miles apart, both working in dangerous situations.
As a first lieutenant, Dan was in Mosul in command of more than 150 convoys, with as many as 100 vehicles, that traveled all over the north of Iraq. “I ran all the shipments in northern Iraq,” Dan says.
He and his 82 men ensured the supply trucks were where they needed to be and also recovered any vehicles and helicopters that were damaged. They could travel only after dark.
“For 15 and a half months I lived only at night,” Dan says in a phone interview. “The reason we’d roll at night is curfew. If someone was around when they shouldn’t have been, we’d shoot them.”
Air support protected their convoys. The soldiers flying the helicopters knew Aaron, whom they nicknamed the “Hebrew Hammer.”
“I have a pretty explosive, intense personality that some people associate with the name,” Aaron says of the moniker common to Jews in the almost exclusively non-Jewish ranks. Aaron’s friends told little brother Dan they’d be watching out for him.
But seated in the passenger side of a heavily armored Humvee, Dan found out there is little protection from an enemy you cannot see. Less than a week after Aaron visited Mosul for Dan’s birthday, Dan was back at work, making sure a convoy of trucks safely reached its destination, when an improvised explosive device ripped through the front quarter of his vehicle.
“You see a flash then you are dazed,” Dan says.
Dan suffered a concussion and was semiconscious. His gunner shook him, saying, “Sir we just got blown up.”
Through the slow recalibration of his mind Dan quipped “no s—t.”
“It’s like hitting the reset button on the PS3,” Dan explains. “You say this is what happened and this is what I need to do.”
In a flurry of activity, he called for air cover and made sure the convoy was secure. For his concentration and capability, Dan was later presented the Bronze Star, the fifth-highest combat medal that the Army awards.
Dan made it out of the immediate danger, rattled but all right. He says that having a brother he could talk about the attack with afterward — a brother who knew the fears and realities of war — was invaluable.
Meanwhile, in November 2006, Aaron was in central Iraq. He was conducting a shift at the headquarters unit monitoring all the helicopters in deployment. Two of his friends, guys that had been in his unit since 2003, were flying near the city of Balad when their chopper went down.
“Those were my friends,” Aaron says. “That is nothing you can ever train for. You can’t fake someone’s death and expect to know how it feels.”
Two hundred miles north, Dan had heard that a helicopter had gone down, and for an hour and a half didn’t know who the pilot was. “That was more scary than me getting blown up,” he remembers, “not knowing what was up with my brother.”
Today, both brothers are back in the States.
In the fall, Dan and two partners opened a nail salon on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. Dan at the counter of the ROBB OPI Concept Salon is a far cry from the descriptions he and his brother give of the war zones.
Dan’s office is upstairs, away from the 25 employees and numerous customers that crowd the sleek manicure tables in rooms lined with flat-screen televisions.
From here, Dan can monitor his salon on a half-dozen cameras routed to a screen above his desk. “A little military technology for you,” he jokes.
Younger brother Jacob comes in and rifles through a cardboard box. Muscular like his two brothers, he takes a moment to ruminate on their accomplishments.
“They made it so I can live my life,” the Burbank middle school instructor says. “They made it so I can teach.”
Dan is still in the reserves but is very content with his new business.
Aaron, meanwhile, is stationed at Fort Bragg. Dan says that he can’t imagine his brother leaving the military any time soon.
“Aaron just loves to fly,” he says. Aaron, who lives with his wife and baby daughter, sees the Army as a career.
These days, the two talk three to four times a day.
“We are better friends now than we have ever been,” Aaron says.
When Dan feels he needs to find someone who understands what it is like coming back from Iraq, he knows he can always call his brother.
“He and I can joke around,” Dan says. “He’ll ask if I’m waking up in a cold sweat doing combat rolls.”
Dan is pretty sure he won’t be sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan. But Aaron is certain to go again.
“I’m really torn about it,” Dan says. “I know what he meant to me while I was out there. I told him that as much as I don’t want to go back, that part of me would to make sure he was OK.”