When I first met Matt five years ago, he was a wisecracking wounded warrior, chowing down on Texas barbecue and boasting about drinking beer from his prosthetic leg. (Girls eat it up, he claims.) He lost his left leg in an explosion in Iraq in 2005, and his goal always was to get back there — to buddies he feels like he abandoned. He got his wish and is psyched about it. Mom? Not so happy.
Talking to Rhetta made me think hard about what I want out of life. This year, I decided to make a New Year’s resolution that I can actually keep: I am going to write once a year about a soldier I’ve met. No tear-jerky columns; just a peek into their lives. Crazy Matt, with his swagger and determination, seemed like a good place to start. Except the Army had him locked up with some fiendish drill sergeant down at Camp Shelby, in Mississippi, so Rhetta and I chatted instead. To get the other side of the story, if you will.
Rhetta remembers her first reaction when Matt started talking about going back to Iraq — almost from day one. “What?! You’re sitting here, you’ve been blown up, and you can’t even stand up!” she remembers. “I’m the mother. Retire. It’s a no-brainer.” But she knew there would be no dissuading Matt. He loves the military, loves the structure. He has found his place in life. “He wanted to be in combat arms,” she says. “That was very scary to deal with as a parent, but I understand. He spent over a year training with these guys. He knows when that team loses a member, they are not as strong as they were. He didn’t want to let the team down.”
First, however, he had to pass the physical. Thanks to advances in battlefield medicine, the military is saving more severely wounded soldiers. As a result, there are more amputees — nearly 1,100 since the war started. Medical boards, accustomed to fixing amputees up and sending them home rather than back to war, tried to get Matt to see the difficulties ahead. “They asked him, ‘Do you really think you can perform in a combat scenario, carry your own weight and maybe someone else who needs you?’ Matt will tell you that’s a fair question,” Rhetta says. “He wanted to be a full member of his unit.” So Matt swam, ran and got into the best shape of his life. He hiked Mount St. Helens to prove he could. A year later, he was ready to be deployed.
While he waited at home in Vancouver, Wash., before returning to Iraq in the fall, Matt rebuilt classic scooters, picked up jobs as a DJ, and volunteered as a speaker for Soldiers’ Angels, a group that provides comfort to soldiers. Rhetta fretted. “He continues to make my life hell,” she says with a laugh. She is eager for him to find a mate in life. But Matt remains stubbornly self-sufficient, except for a crisis or two — the latest last spring. “Matt called late at night, midnight, and said, ‘Mom, take me to the hospital. I was taking a shower and I forgot I didn’t have my leg on.’ He went wham to the floor and hit his stump,” she says soberly. “He has fun with his leg, but there’s another side too. He just couldn’t stand the pain anymore.” He faced another crisis right before Christmas, when he was airlifted out of the Middle East to Germany so military doctors could evaluate problems with his prosthetic. Matt had lost weight and his prosthetic no longer fit, resulting in a sore and bruises on his amputated leg.
Matt is not the only one keeping Rhetta’s “supermom worries” alive these days. Besides Matt, she has a son-in-law deployed in Basra and a nephew-in-law in Mosul. “I swear it’s genetic,” says Rhetta. Her father was in the Air Force, and two brothers served in the Gulf wars for the Navy. Even her “girly-girl” daughter signed up with the Army. “You get so focused on your fear. You can’t sit still,” Rhetta says. A support system is key. “Some people need someone they can call at two in the morning and just cry — not say anything, just cry.” To distract herself, Rhetta got involved with the Family Readiness Group for Matt’s unit. She dispenses advice to families with soldiers heading overseas for the first time. Matt was more than ready, and Rhetta made sure he packed right. She bought him the latest version of the video game Command & Conquer.