There are several amazing things about the 30 or 40 raids Matthew Bogdanos' unit conducted in Iraq and five other countries to recover historical artifacts looted from Baghdad museums.
In travels over two years, an elite team of civilians and military personnel recovered nearly 2,000 artifacts, some dating back to the dawn of civilization.
"We launched each of those raids with information we got from Iraqis, and each time we found what we were looking for," said Bogdanos, an assistant Manhattan district attorney now on extended leave and working as an anti-terrorism expert with the U.S. Department of Defense.
"We never walked into an ambush, and it would have been easy for them to set us up. If you want to give credit for what we recovered - we recovered some 1,930 antiquities, some that people just walked in and handed to us - credit the Iraqi people. For those people to trust me took a remarkable act of courage."
Bogdanos, 48, is living a remarkable life, one framed by lessons gleaned from a book and a restaurant.
The book was "The Iliad," Homer's classic. His mother, Claire, gave it to him for his 12th birthday, and made sure he read it.
"Try to find a lesson in life that is not in 'The Iliad,'" Bogdanos said. "We had a debate in this country on whether we should enter Iraq. There is that same debate in 'The Iliad' - two kings debating whether they should fight in a foreign land."
The restaurant was Denos, the Greek eatery on E. 26th St. and Third Ave. that his family ran and that he and his three brothers grew up in. The family lived in the rear of the restaurant, and when Bogdanos and his three brothers were not in school they were there working.
"My dad was serious that we could do every job in the restaurant," he said. "I was bus boy, waiter, bartender, dishwasher, short order cook. You name it, I did it."
"It's a lesson I carried with me into the military," Bogdanos continued. "You don't have to do everything better than everyone else, in fact you shouldn't. But you should know how to do every job that is under your command."
With little formal education of their own, his parents were adamant that their children be well-schooled. Customers who could help with the difficult homework question of the day would be graced with a free glass of wine or a piece of baklava.
"Table one was the homework table," he said. "While one of us was doing homework, the others would be busing tables, cleaning glasses, sweeping the floors, something. One of the biggest days of my life was when my dad told me I was old enough to peel the shrimp. I think I was 8 years old."
Some of the restaurant tutors would turn out to be the lawyers and judges Bogdanos would later face in court. He says one judge told him he was a smart-aleck kid and now he is a smart-mouthed lawyer.
Their father was determined that his sons would not follow him into the restaurant business, and knew exactly how to guarantee it - he gave Bogdanos and his twin, Mark, Denos restaurants to run when they turned 17.
At the time the family had three restaurants of the same name on the same block.
It took him two years to see dad was right.
"I was sleeping in the restaurant," Bogdanos remembers. "I never left. Someone was always out sick, or the meat guy brought the wrong cuts. There was always something. I decided there had to be an easier way to make a living."
So he joined the Marine Corps.
Actually, he and a few buddies made drunken vows to enlist but only Bogdanos showed up at the recruitment station the next day. The recruiter took one look at his test scores and knew Bogdanos was a well-educated grunt.
"He told me I was going to college," Bogdanos said. "He gave me a direct order, and when a Marine orders you to do something, you better do it."
The Don Bosco Preparatory School graduate chose Bucknell University, and joined the Marines on Jan. 15, 1977, the second semester of his freshman year. "They left me alone during the school year," Bogdanos said. "In the summers, I went to Officers Candidate school."
He graduated with a degree in classical studies from Bucknell and then went to Columbia University Law School, where he earned a law degree and a master's in classical studies.
He also met and was mentored by the late Judge Harold Rothwax, a jurist known for his acerbic wit and legal brilliance.
"As soon as I set foot in his courtroom and saw what prosecutors did, I knew," Bogdanos said. "The way you feel in a courtroom is the same emotion you feel, frankly, on the battlefield. It's a test of your ability. Have you studied hard enough? Have you prepared? You know the consequences if you are not prepared - an innocent victim goes unprotected or their family is denied justice. If you're on the battlefield, you or someone for whom you are responsible could die."
Bogdanos was still in the Marine Reserves when he joined the Manhattan district attorney's office in 1988. He rose to senior homicide trial counsel and served as liaison to a counternarcotics task force on the Arizona/Mexico border, acted as a senior military adviser to the Guyana National Defense Forces, and spent 10 years training in various military jobs such as special weapons. In 1998, U.S. Central Command sent him to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to conduct anti-terrorism training.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Bogdanos was reassigned to Afghanistan, where he was a member of a multiagency task force doing counterterrorism work. He earned a Bronze Star and the rank of colonel there before being named to head the unit.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq and word of the looting leaked out, Bogdanos asked to head the antiquities recovery effort.
"These antiquities are testaments to our shared heritage," Bogdanos said. "But we could not have done any of it without the Iraqi people, 99% of whom love us."