I am the oldest of two children born in Sacramento, California. Adopted at the age of eight with my biological sister, we grew up in the Hill Country of Central Texas. In 2006, I graduated high school and embarked on a journey into the United States Army. My mother, fearful of me being another statistic in the growing wars, insisted on helping me choose my future career field. Her choice won, as it usually does, and I enlisted as a Chaplain’s Assistant. My primary responsibility was as a bodyguard since Chaplains do not carry weapons in combat. I was also responsible for the logistics of the UMT or Unit Ministry Team and assisting the Chaplain in the performance of field services. I was assigned to the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division and in 2008, we deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq. The chaplain and I traveled across Northern Iraq quite often as our unit was spread across three different bases in the region. We would also assist other area UMTs as needed.
In January of 2009, I experienced a deep loss. Four of my friends had been killed overnight in a helicopter crash. I struggled with this new reality that surrounded me. I kept thinking it could be me next, but I tried to hide the pain I was feeling by focusing on the mission ahead of me. One of our key projects was assisting in the renovation and reopening of a family cemetery located on one of our bases. The cemetery was the resting place of ancestors of local villagers, who had not been permitted access to the cemetery in decades following the rising of Saddam Hussein. Working with both Muslim and Christian leaders from the local population, as well as different units within the United States military, we were able to overhaul the entire cemetery and make it a proper final resting place that could be visited by the locals. Reopening that cemetery to the public and seeing families kneel beside their ancestors for the first time in decades really gave me a sense of pride and even more of a love for helping others.
When I returned home in October of 2009, I found out that life had changed for me. I felt like everyone was against me, that no one understood me and so I began to turn down a dark path. I was discharged 4 years and 2 days after I enlisted and returned to Texas to live with my parents. I hated being under their rules, hated feeling confined with nowhere to go. I lashed out against my parents and my sister. I started to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. I felt myself spiraling down until I decided enough was enough. I decided to strike out on my own and escape what I thought were the problems in my life.
On a bus ride to New York City I befriended a man who came on in Atlanta. He was an old school veteran. He understood. Once in New York, he sheltered me until I ended up being referred to the Northport Veterans Affairs Hospital. As I spent the better part of the next year getting myself back on track, I began to reach out to local agencies for long term help. United Veterans Beacon House was the first organization that stepped up to the plate and assisted me immediately with transitional housing and educational support. Once I got myself stable and into my own housing, they helped me again by providing me employment in one of their residences.
I decided that I wanted to create a better chance for other veterans like me and that to do so, I would need to return to school. As things were now getting better, my mode of transportation failed me. I was at risk of losing everything I was working for. United Beacon House reached out on my behalf and connected with United Way of Long Island, who was able to assist me in securing a vehicle so that I could keep up with my work and schooling. Now, as I reach the end of my college career, United Way has given me an internship opportunity with “Mission United“, an initiative that focuses specifically on veterans. Through this program, I have not only learned so much about the career path I have chosen, but I have met truly inspirational people who are guided by the goodness inside of them. I look forward to what each day brings me now and am open to all opportunities and life lessons. I also learned one thing about myself. No matter what happens, no matter how life treats you, there is always a hand ready to lift you up. I have begun to focus my efforts on supporting other veterans in their transition from the military to civilian life so that, like United Veterans Beacon House and United Way of Long Island, one day, I can be the hand that helps another veteran find their way back. (Picture: Matt during Basic Training Graduation Day at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.)
MISSION UNITED is a critical program supporting United States military veterans and their families as they re-acclimate to civilian life. MISSION UNITED focuses on employment services, education, financial services, health and housing support. The need for these services is particularly significant on Long Island as we have over 135,000 veterans living in our communities, of whom over 4,700 have entered the service since September 11, 2001.