When you’re the proud owner of a basset hound named Monty—after the “Spartan General” Bernard Montgomery—it’s easier to establish your bona fides as a war historian. But longtime BGES member Vinney DiMattina doesn’t need man’s best friend to prove his chops. As a kid growing up in Flushing, New York, he dreamed of a career in the military, and ultimately saw that wish come true, serving for 20 years, mostly working in air traffic control. He moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1984, and he still lives there today. That’s where he met BGES founder Len Riedel and started his study of the Civil War in earnest. DiMattina talked to the BGES Blog about his love of military history and how he has put that into practice.
BGES Blog: You were raised in New York City, and moved to Virginia later in life. Is that when your interest in the Civil War began?
VD: Yes. I had always been a history buff. My initial interest was primarily aviation and World War II. Moving to Northern Virginia brought me so close to history that I used to just read about. To go to battlefields and see the actual terrain is amazing. It allows you to use your imagination and get a feel for what things were really like.
BGES Blog: What else about the Civil War sparked your passion?
VD: The personalities and people, the leaders and the grunts. General Lee has always fascinated me. He had this incredible life and career, and then he was relegated to the back of the bus. I actually wrote a play about him, a one-man show called “Marse Robert.”
BGES Blog: Did your interest in the Civil War lead you to BGES?
VD: I knew Lenny from the military. We were in the same career field. I sat behind him at work. When he retired, he started BGES. Lenny is really knowledgeable about the Civil War. I enjoyed learning from him. I think I was BGES member number 10.
BGES Blog: You got involved with the Yellow Ribbon Fund around the same time. How did that come about?
VD: After 9-11, I thought about re-enlisting in the military. But I was in my fifties, and decided I was too old. I had a nephew who was a sniper in the Army, and I just wanted to do something to help. I remember watching a piece on “60 Minutes” about a female solider who returned from Iraq as an amputee. It really struck me, and I started doing volunteer work with the Yellow Ribbon Fund. I often met with soldiers at Walter Reed. I did a lot of listening, and just let them talk. They were amazing kids. Most wanted to get patched up and go back to join their units.
BGES Blog: You teamed up with Len to introduce many of these soldiers to Civil War battlefields. What was that like?
VD: I remember being at a fundraiser in D.C., and talking to a Marine who had lost his arm in combat because of an IED. He joked that he felt like a POW—a “Prisoner of Walter Reed”—because he almost never got to leave. I mentioned this to Len, and he began to invite Veterans on BGES tours. At first, I was a bit apprehensive given the bloody nature of the Civil War. But I was so impressed with these Veterans. I used to be critical of the all-volunteer force, but they taught me a lot. It’s hard to believe that all these years later people are still coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with grave injuries.