Lasting memorial for Matt Dahl
July 18, 2012
On a spring evening in a Madison County neighborhood where kids were ending a day of outdoor play, the lives of Mike Dahl and his family took a traumatic turn for the worst in one single heartbeat.
That's how long it took for a teenage alleged drunk driver to hit 6-year-old Matt Dahl as he rode his bike across the street to talk to friends about organizing a game of flashlight tag.
And, in that heartbeat, Matt was killed.
This is the sad story of a family's loss. It is the story of the life of Mike Dahl, a retired Marine and now Redstone Arsenal employee, and his wife, Marge, and their two children as they learn to go on without the youngest member of their family. This is the story of a mourning family trying to find hope as they cope with the needless death of their playful, energetic, baseball loving son.
"Matt loved to play ball," said his mom, Marge. "If any kids were outside playing, he was always out there. He was so full of life. He was very social. He loved playing in the neighborhood with the other kids. He wanted to play all the time. He had great friends in the neighborhood."
The Dahl family moved to the Harvest/Monrovia area of Madison County following Mike's second deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"It was a choice between going to the Pentagon or to Alabama," Dahl said of his decision to take a military liaison job working with the Aviation and Missile Command. "Marge was having Matt, and we thought 'Let's just go to Alabama and see.'"
They had heard about the Redstone Arsenal/Huntsville area from previous neighbors at Cherry Point, N.C.
"Mike came out for house hunting and he told me 'You are absolutely going to love it here.' He was right. I fell in love with this area. It reminds me of home back in central Minnesota," Marge said.
At Redstone, Dahl, a Marine lieutenant colonel, was assigned to serve as the Naval Air Systems Command's liaison to AMCOM. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 2009, and then went to work for the Missile Defense Agency, where he is a program management analyst.
Everything was going well for the family, which includes older son Ryan, now 11, and daughter Elise, 9. Besides work, Mike was involved with the Semper Fi Community Task Force, leading the initial efforts to bring wounded warriors to Huntsville for patriotic weekend events. Mike and Marge coached their children's baseball, softball, basketball and soccer teams, with the family particularly enjoying their time together in the summer at local ball fields. Their home was often filled with the playful sounds of their children's friends, who enjoyed the family's swimming pool, batting cage and the fun chaos of the Dahl's loving home.
The evening of May 28, 2011, promised to be filled with fun with friends. Matt had just graduated from kindergarten and had enjoyed his 6th birthday three days earlier. He and his siblings were spending the evening with a babysitter while their parents enjoyed the Toby Keith outdoor concert on Redstone Arsenal. With the mention of organizing a game of flashlight tag, Matt decided to run outside to let his friends know of the evening's plans.
"All the kids were outside. It was a gorgeous evening. It was still light. Matt took off on his bike to get his friends. He was riding right outside the cul-de-sac to his two friends who were playing Nerf gun," Marge said. "He was going across the street and his friends yelled 'Matt, look out!' A car was going really fast. Matt was killed on impact. His body was thrown 100 feet."
The 19-year-old alleged drunk driver reportedly hit Matt at 58 mph. Matt's helmet was no protection against the violent impact of the car. Parts of Matt's bike were later found in neighborhood yards. There were no skid marks at the scene. The driver never stopped. He was arrested several hours later, and charged with manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident.
"Nothing can prepare you for something like this," Mike said. "I had to resign from the Semper Fi Community Task Force board of directors. I just didn't have the energy or the will for it. I had to focus on my family.
"During two deployments to Iraq, I saw death every day. You learn to compartmentalize it because that's the only way you can keep going. I spent time at the battalion aid station during the Battle of Fallujah (in 2004) when the Marine Corps had hundreds of casualties. I've gone to the funerals of fallen Soldiers and Marines. In those deaths, you can take some comfort in that they died for a cause, they died for something they fought for. But Matt shouldn't have died. You don't ever get over the pain of the loss of a child. You have to learn to live with it."
"It's your child," Marge added, rubbing tears from her eyes. "It's your worst memory, your worst nightmare. I still get up in the morning and think it's a dream. And then I realize it's not. It's reality."
The family can still be found at local ball fields in the summer. Their daughter was an All-Star softball player this year.
"Marge still coaches (their daughter's teams), but now I'm a dugout dad," Mike said. "It's tough to coach. You see the kids that he played with and it brings back all the memories. I'm still called 'Matt's dad.' That's how the kids know me."
"Going to the ball field is hard and it's comforting at the same time," Marge added. "It's hard to go to the field and see Matt's team playing. They used to always say 'Get the ball to Matt because he'll know what to do.' He had watched his older siblings playing ball. He had practiced with his sister and her team when I coached her Redstone Arsenal team. He was so good the team thought he was one of their players, even though he wasn't old enough to play. He grew up knowing the concept of the sport."
Matt's older brother struggles quietly with his death while Matt's sister tries to stay positive.
"She'll say to me and Mike 'Tell us the good things about Matt.' And she'll say things like 'If Matt were here, he'd do this or he'd do that.' She says 'He's in heaven with grandpa now,'" Marge said.
Family and friends have shown their support for the Dahl family. Recently, on Matt's 7th birthday, neighborhood friends tied blue bows to the neighborhood's mailboxes in Matt's memory. Their faith and church family have also helped them through the difficult times. The Semper Fi Community Task Force has set up a scholarship for military-connected children at Aviation Challenge in memory of Matt and his love of learning about stars and moons, rock formations, numbers, and airplanes and helicopters.
The family of the teenage driver has tried to reach out to the Dahl family, but they have refused such contact. A July 26 hearing has been set to argue for the teenager's request to be tried as a youthful offender, a move that the Dahl family strongly opposes. A letter writing campaign by local veterans led by the North Alabama Veterans and Fraternal Organization Coalition is sending letters opposing the youthful offender status to the Madison County District Attorney's Office. The letters will be submitted to the judge as part of the hearing record.
If the 19-year-old does obtain youthful offender status, the case will be forever sealed and he will not have a criminal record.
"We don't want the record of Matt's death to be sealed," Marge said. "If there is no record, then this drunk driver will not be a criminal. He will have no record. He could run for president or do anything with his life, and not have a record. The day he turns 21, if he is arrested for a DUI, it will be considered his first offense."
For Mike, a 19-year-old should step up and take responsibility as the adult that they should be.
"There's no accountability, no responsibility, for this drunk driver," he said. "I served with some of the finest 18- and 19-year-olds in Iraq. You are either an adult or you're not. This guy is an adult. There is overwhelming evidence of the act he committed. Witnesses said he knew he had hit something on the road. Should he only get 18 months and no record of what he did as a youthful offender? Or should he be found guilty of a Class A felony and sentenced to serve 10 to 99 years?
"I served with men who took the oath to support and defend our country. Now, I want the law to support and defend us, to support and defend Matt, to give us justice for what has happened to Matt."
Marge said a conviction as an adult in the case has ramifications far beyond what happened on May 28, 2011. It also sends a message to others who mix drinking and driving.
"The ultimate goal is to inform 16 to 21-year-olds to not drink and drive in Madison County," she said. "If he gets off on this, it tells teenagers this is your free ticket because if you drink and drive you'll get off as a youthful offender. It sends the wrong message. This 19-year-old had a choice to get behind the wheel. He had a choice to drink and drive."
While the Dahl family waits for the case to work itself through the court system, they have taken action in their own way to remember their son. In February, Marge began efforts to have a ball field built at their children's elementary school -- Legacy Elementary -- in memory of Matt.
"I needed something, a project, that would help me through all this," Marge said. "It's a brand new school and it's just a short walk across a field from our house. Right now, there is not a ball field at the school. I'm a former physical education teacher, and I was thinking about what I could do for the school in Matt's name. That's when I thought of this ball field."
Marge contacted Legacy Parent/Teacher Organization president Melody Helms and the school principal to get their approval of the project. James Hise, an architect with Florence & Hutcheson, donated plans for the ball field. Madison County commissioner Dale Strong committed the county to doing the ground work for the field. Even at that, the cost of the ball field will be about $30,000. Donations are being accepted at Redstone Federal Credit Union through the Matt Dahl Memorial Ball Field Fund. So far about $15,000 has been raised.
"The goal is to get the field down before school starts," Marge said, adding that preparations for ground work are under way.
"This will be a lasting memorial to Matt," Mike said. "It will be used as long as the school is there. It will be multi-purpose so that the school and the community can use it as a practice field and for PE during the school day."
Recently, the family participated in a groundbreaking for the new ball field. They wore uniforms from Matt's Little League team, and were joined by school officials as well as Alabama State Trooper Jason Fox, the first officer to respond when Matt was killed; Shauna Barnett, the Madison County assistant DA prosecuting the driver in the case; architect Hise and Jon Liddle, who helped secure the dirt for the needed field.
Mike and Marge Dahl do find hope and happiness in the plans for the ball field being built in Matt's memory. Yet, even in their smiles, there is some sadness.
"When something like this happens, your life is changed forever," Marge said. "You can never go back. All those dreams you had for your son are gone. You have to give up those dreams. Your dreams to teach him how to fly a kite, to throw a spiral, to drive a car -- you don't have those anymore. So, instead, you try to do whatever you can so that other Madison County families don't have to go through something like this."