Monday, August 16, 2010

738. From Fallujah to Philanthropy

By: Dario DiBattista

You can see him behind his laptop at the Washington, D.C. Dupont Circle Starbucks at end of an eight hour day, crafting the framework for his entrepreneurship. Six years ago, in Fallujah, as a corporal in the D.C.-based Marine Reserve unit, Mortuary Affairs, you could see him in rubber-gloved hands, collecting the corpses of his dead comrades. “You just hoped the body you found wasn’t the one of someone you knew,” Xi Xiang tells me.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” I ask.

“I don’t even know how to answer that question,” he replies, his deadpan gaze hinting at a deep trauma that belies his smile and congenial manner.

It really must have been bad. Xiang and his Marines developed a dark humor to cope with their job. In a photo of his group at the time, an image titled “We’re Dead,” you can see all the mortuary Marines laying on top of each other in a row with large, beaming smiles, in one of the mass graves they prepared for the dead insurgents.

As a protocol for their job, they had to have weekly sit-ins with Navy chaplains acting as counselors. After one week of his counseling responsibilities, a new ensign had to leave the room to cry at the stories Xiang was relating to him.

The muscular, dark-crème-skinned 28-year-old’s life has never been the same since Fallujah. Days after the battle ended, his team was sent into the abandoned city to collect the remaining enemy corpses. Amongst the rubble – blasted out homes with rebar-spiked chunks, downed power lines, and mortar crushed streets – Xiang observed a toddler standing alone in the carnage. He reasoned the child’s parents were dead. He believed the boy had no future, and would probably perish, too.

“If I ever get out of this f***er,” Xiang told one of his buddies under the scarlet sunset of Mesopotamian evening, mortars cracking in the distance, “I want to do something big.”

He thought for a long time about what exactly he was going to do. He knew that he wanted to make difference, he just couldn’t decide on how. But a seven month tour gives a man a lot of time to think.

“I really believe in education,” Xiang says, “it’s all you can give to someone to help them improve their own circumstances, which in turn creates better civic responsibilities, lower crime rates, more wealth – the benefits are exponential.” His idea to help give better education to new generations is broken down in three main ways. Xiang pumps his fist and raises a new finger as he lists them, “Scholarships, incentive programs, funding scholastic programs.”

Xiang wants to use his business dream – a patent-pending software platform that selects and distributes advertisements for out-of-home digital display networks – to finance his desired philanthropy. He spends every free second on this project, when he’s not doing IT consulting for major military contractors. With a large portion of the projected profits for his venture (he hopes to have a demo ready by the end of this year), he plans to start a nonprofit organization, a “dot org” as he refers to it. “I have an insane compulsion,” Xiang says almost bouncing out of his seat. “I just want to impact the world.”

He’ll be there, clacking away at his keyboard, until he can make his dream a reality. If you’re on the Circle for a late-night latte, maybe you should shake his hand. He’s working the hardest he can to create real change for this insane world.

All content ©Dario DiBattista 2010. All posts are for display purposes only and not to be considered published.