The idea of swapping identities to go from a civilian to a military serviceman who believed it was his duty as well as an honor and a commitment to serve was not new to Matthew. Afer all, he was a fourth generation soldier. His Great-Grandfather enlisted in World War I in England. His Grandfather fought in World War II in Germany, and, his own father signed up and was sent to Vietnam in the mid-sixties. As those who had gone before him, Matt believed if he wanted to know himself, he had to be tested; no one finds out what he can do except by the trying, Matt firmly believed. Matt, like his predecessors who enlisted in wartime, was brave and courageous.
Listening to numerous tales of bravado growing up, Matt wondered, with what spirit he would face his fears supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, if he were to be deployed. Matt joined up at he age of eighteen, like many military personnel he did it for the incentives that were offered – education, tuition assistance and opportunities that he felt would lead to post-military employment. What he wanted more than anything was a career as a political journalist.
As it turned out, the likelihood of him being successful in his chosen endeavor was almost assured. His time in the Armed services would set the foundation for many of his dreams to come true. He would become a radio operator calling in combat operations, a communications escort in charge of Iraq civilians, and often an escort to military and civilian dignitaries
With all the lessons he had already learned from his family’s background, Matt immediately fit right in the military community. Once he was stationed in the Middle East his main focus was on helping Iraq forces protect residents and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Like the soldiers he lived with daily, his active service duty was very sobering. So many of the events he participated in and learned of while in Iraq, kept him awake at night. The time he spent over there made a difference in his perceptions about life – how could they not? Matthew left as a boy and returned as a man. Even though coming back into civilian life had presented him with a wide range of personal hurdles, as it does for so many service members, Matt still had many dreams he wanted to fullfill. He had solid plans, objectives he had thought about many times and had carefully and meticulously considered, major goals for his future civilian life. Out of all of the dreams he had envisioned doing, what he looked forward to the most was spending time with his father, David and, reconnecting with his other family members. Nothing spectacular, mind you; just once again, participating in their day-to-day lives.
Matt loved people and was deeply committed to their happiness. When he returned from his service duty, he pledged himself to a position that allowed him to interface closely with senior. He took a job working as a certified nurses aid at a State Veterans nursing home not to far from his father and step-mother. He was a wonderful help to everyone in the institution in a multitude of ways – mainly, just by making himself always available. Everyone knew they could call on him if they needed him to lend them an ear. He never wanted someone on his watch at work to just languish away from loneliness and neglect. Matt abhorred the idea of anyone dying alone without family or friends or someone there in their final moments of life. If there wasn’t any family, he would become that patient’s family and hold their hand as they moved on.
His heightened sensitivity to the elderly he served, quickly became his signature of care. His gentleness was an amazing quality when you consider the short and long-term effects from being in close combat situations and how he may have been affected mentally and, to what degree. The military taught Matt about the importance of paying attention to details and this ethic was reflected in the way he attended to those who were the recipients of his loving and compassionate care. Matt would sit and chat with his patients for countless hours even after clocking out after his shift amidst the protests of his co-workers who urged him constantly to go on home. You could just see the smiles beaming on the faces of the residents, especially, those with special-needs that he worked with every day when they knew he was in the building.
Matt had a brother Charles (Chuck) who was four years older. David was proud of both of his sons; however, there was a special bond between his youngest son, Matt. When Matt was four, his parents divorced and for two years, Dave struggled to see his two little boys without any success. Oddly enough, in a later court decision, Dave was actually awarded full custody of his sons.
Dave struggled however, to be a good single parent. He worked days in Summer on highway maintenance projects and nights and weekends plowing snow in the Winter months. The extra money he needed to earn to make ends meet meant putting in a lot of overtime, juggling babysitters and getting up or staying up after an all night shift to get the kids on a bus, etc. Grandma and Grandpa tried to fill in where they could but Dave took the blunt of the parental responsibilities. At age twelve, Chuck decided to go live with his mother and that is when the real bond strengthened between Matthew and his father. Dave and Matt became inseparable.
During those early single-parent years, David pretty much forfeited his own personal life. When Matt was seven Dave met and started occasionally dating a woman named, Sylvia. It was hard to maintain a relationship and there wasn’t time for much of a social life as David continued to work atrocious hours to support and raise his small family. David and Sylvia dated off-and-on for several years and eventually, marry, but only just before Matt was deployed to Iraq. During those early years of David and Sylvia’s relationship she and Matt had an opportunity to developed a special closeness.
Matthew loved women and women (both young and old) dearly adored Matt. During Matt’s growing up years, Sylvia often commented that she felt that Matt needed more playmates his own age and not just his dad. Dave made it a point to take Matt along with him when he visited the Veterans from the second World War. They would spend hours playing at horseshoes and sitting around reminising. Sylvia’s concern was that young Matt might be spent a little too much time around the older generation. She feared he wasn’t being allowed sufficent opportunities to just be a “kid.” In retrospect, Sylvia eventually came to realize that those childhood years spent learning from, observing and being mentored by his senior “playmates,” helped to shape Matthew into the wise young man he was – well beyond his years. Matt was a one-of-a-kind person, incredibly sensitive, yet, emotionally strong and unbelieveably courageous like his father, his father’s father and his dad. He was a man who made such an extraordinary mark on the world.
Even as a teenager, Matt was very aware of the many sacrifices that his father made for him and his older brother. When he became of age he wanted to buy a car but unlike his friends, he wanted to do this completely, on his own – never considering asking his father for financial assistance in purchasing this automobile. Matthew had a strong work ethic, learned not only from his father, but from his grandparents, too; who influenced Matt’s life. When he was 15, Matt started working in the kitchen of a local nursing home before being promoted to a nursing assistant. At age seventeen, Matt took a position for a year in a State Veterans nursing facility. It was there that he came in contact with World War II heros whose personal histories spoke to him. It was after a year with them that he elected to join the Armed Services.
While working with the veterans in this facility, he came to the aid of the nurses on many occassions. They would call upon Matt when they were having a hard time getting the Vietnam vets to comply with regulatory issues. The nurses soon discovered that Matt had exceptional people skills which they would employ as a secret weapon to get their patients in check. The nurses would talk Matt into having a couple of beers and some cigarettes with them to defuse combative situations. It worked like a charm because Matt’s easy-going and fun-loving manner always disarmed them.
Matt had plenty of experience with Veterans. His father held numerous positions with the Veterans of Foreign Wars for over twenty- three years. During that time, Dave served several terms as Commander of his local VFW; also as District Commander and held many other State and National appointments. Matt participated in many VFW projects, volunteering for barbecues, helping out at Christmas parties and for local bingo events.
Matthew was the first to step forward when someone needed help – either at work, or just friends or family. Matt worked long hours at the State VA Nursing Home – many hours off the clock, as well as those on. During the week before his death, Matt helped a friend move during the day, then went to work for his late night shift. He was looking forward to his weekend off after his grueling week; but when a co-worker was looking for someone to fill in for them on their early morning shift, Matt was quick to volunteer. So after just a few hours sleep, Matt kissed his girlfriend good-bye and left to do what he was so good at – to give of himself.
It had been only months since Matt had been discharged from the military, having served a tour of duty in Iraq. He was laying the groundwork for a whole new life. At work, Matt met a woman, four years his senior with a little girl age six, and, her brother two years her senior, age eight. Matt loved the time he spent with these two children. He would take them fishing, bowling or just shooting baskets. Matt knew he wanted to include Rosemary and her children in his future. After serving over three years in the military, one of which was in combat duty; Matt was considering rejoining the army so he could support his new family.
Matt was fascinated with military history and was an avid reader. He was constantly taking continuing education courses and studying up on all the different aspects of miliary service. He held the veterans in high regard, especially those who served in Vietnam and World War II. He would go out of his way to befriend them and always made mention of how much he appreciated their acts of service.
Matt was extremely proud of his dad, too; and very grateful to him for all the years he devoted to raising him and his brother as a sole parent. He very quietly and without fanfare, took out a life insurance policy. Matt made certain that he paid the premiums on despite, his meager salary. And, it was not cheap, it was the highest amount allowed. He wanted to ensure that if anything ever happened to him, his father would have the financial resources necessary to live a comfortable life in his later years. In fact, Matt would joke with Dave about the money that would be awarded to him in the event of his death. A memory that continues to haunt Dave to this very day, that is so sad, and, so touching, is that Matt mentioned on more than one occasion, that he did not believe he would live to see his 27th birthday.
None of these thoughts were probably in Matt’s mind as he left home for an overtime shift at the VA nursing home. As an Iraq war veteran, almost certainly, the furthest thing that was in his consciousness as he drove to work that last day of his life, was his mortality. For Matt, who was deeply appreciated by all, and, loved by so many, home meant safety and comfort and, time with people he cared for as much as life – itself. At the age of only twenty-two, his car ran off the roadway and, hit a power pole. Matt was pronounced dead on the scene.
Only a month earlier, Matthew was asked to fold and present the flag at a funeral service for a relative. Little did the family know, that within thirty days, a flag would be folded on behalf of Matt, at a similar ceremony, honoring a hero. Matthew’s flag was folded by six soldiers from his army unit that had served with Matt in Iraq. Matt’s first Sargent presented the flag to his family. Each of the strong young men in attendance were soldiers, and they did what soldiers are trained to do….they stood at attention, throughout the service; but no one could help but notice their struggle to hold back their tears. As they stood over their Brother, Matt, each in their own way remembered the year they all served together in Iraq, with a fourth generation soldier and survived, only to have to say goodbye in this unexplainable way.
Who was Matt? He was a gangly kid who stood five feet, nine inches tall, and who loved to play sports and was really good at doing so. He was the light of his father’s life – a little boy who Dave watched from the sidelines, bursting with pride as he looked on while his youngest son participated in the games that made him an excellent athlete in T-ball and basketball. Matt was a man who allowed himself to be influenced by women. Like the girl whom he grew up with, who was seven years his senior and, later became his step-sister. Matt allowed her to teach him to be sensitive to the concerns of intelligent and willful females and not to be threatened by their independence as so many men today, are. He was a hero to those who knew him in a the military or, who had the pleasure of his acquaintance in civilian life and who witnessed their ceremonies or who took the photographs when he accepted trophies and his numerous accolades. Matt was the young soldier who was chosen as first “Soldier of the Quarter” and later “Soldier of the Year” for his battalion. He was a curious young man who questioned how someone like Hitler could have become so victorious and inspired the termination of millions of Jewish people. Matt had read over a hundred books and was considered an expert on the atrocities Hitler committed. Matt was a handsome man who could have had a successful career as a model in NY City if he had led a different type of life that was centered on his “All American Boy” good looks. Matt was a responsible person who thought nothing of the prospect of raising another man’s children and was willing to risk his life with another tour of duty or to put his life on the line as State Patrolman to do it. Matt was waiting to get the results of his state troopers exam at the time of his death. Matt was a professional who transformed the role of nurse’s aid to a status that is rarely achieved by even the most dedicated of healthcare workers. Matthew was someone who freely shared his zest for life with everyone and anyone who needed to have their spirits lifted so they could pick themselves up and move on as he had done so many times for himself. You see, what no one knew about Matt was that he was suffering, silently, by the torments that all soldiers do, memories of unspeakable horrors, of things that a young man his age should never be exposed to. Only weeks before his death, Matt had been given a diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and had yet, to receive treatment. Matt was his own person – a fully capable and considerate human being loved by so many that the procession of funeral cars that lead up to the cemetery stretched over three miles.
Every year without fail, regardless of the piles of icy snow, Matt’s friends and family would make it a point to gather at his gravesite to pay him homage. All this for a youngster who grew up without the support of a mother and who dropped out of school and, who later had to make up time by studying and taking a GED test to graduate.
Matt was all these things and, more. Perhaps, this is the reason why, when you visit the PTS Center for Treatment and, you walk through its lobby, you pass a glass display case with some of the soldier’s items on display. There on the shelves, gleaming in the soft light, that amplifies the gentleness of the most noblest of service members, are the reminders of a fourth generation soldier – Matt’s combat boots, his eyeglasses, his trusty compass and canteen and his pocket-knife. And, if you were not fortunate enough to have met this young man, a man of men, and to have been touched by him in life, the soul of Matt remains, in this place, on exhibit, where he serves to remind us of how anyone can leave this world, at any age, under any set of circumstances, no matter how self-defeating they appear, with a history that speaks for itself and, boldly states….”I Triumphed over Tragedy, and, you can too!”