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Face of Defense: Soldier Shares Lessons Learned, Empathy

By Army Spc. Josh LeCappelain
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq, Dec. 11, 2008 – Some servicemembers’ careers are defined by a single deployment. For Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Matthews, frequent deployments have become a way of life.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Matthews stretches before a morning run on Camp Victory, Iraq, Dec. 4, 2008. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Josh LeCappelain

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Matthews’ most recent deployment landed him here, where he now enjoys sharing what he’s learned about deployments, as well as some empathy, with others.

“I have a ton of Army experience and deployments under my belt,” he said. “It’s rewarding to pass my knowledge on to other people.”

Matthews is the noncommissioned officer in charge of Multinational Division Center’s analysis and control element. This is his eighth overseas deployment in 18 years in the Army, on top of numerous relocations stateside. But, he’s not complaining.

“I love my job,” he said. “The feeling you get, the sense of accomplishment when returning from a deployment, is unbelievable.”

A resident Neversink, N.Y. -- known as the birthplace of American fly fishing -- Matthews enlisted as an engineer after his high school graduation in 1990. Before long, he was headed to basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

“I did really well at AIT,” he said. “I got more comfortable and felt like I had picked the right job.”

Following graduation, Matthews was assigned to the 52nd Engineers at Fort Carson, Colo. Arriving at his new home, he found out his unit was deployed to Saudi Arabia. After a brisk month’s work of preparation, the young private found himself in the Middle East.

“Being 19, it is hard being so far away from home in a combat zone,” he said of his three-month first deployment. “You try to set a rhythm, but it’s hard as a private.”

Matthews returned to Fort Carson, continuing to learn his job and the ways of the Army. It was during this time that he married his high school sweetheart, Katrina. Together, they forged their way forward and started a family. They have three children: Britney, 16; Jenna, 12; and Trey, 6.

In 1993, the call came again to deploy. This time, Matthews would be going to Somalia, just months after 18 servicemembers were killed there when two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down during a humanitarian mission in the East African nation in an incident chronicled in Mark Bowden’s book titled “Black Hawk Down” and the motion picture adapted from the book.

By then, Matthews said, he “was a little more comfortable” about deploying. But, he added, “Somalia was my worst deployment. Following the incidents of ‘Black Hawk Down,’ my family was really frightened. … Convincing them I was safe was very difficult.”

After four months, Matthews returned to the United States. He soon learned he would be traveling again the following year. “We started training to go to Haiti,” he recalled, adding that the deployment would be his most enjoyable one.

“We went to the beach and actually built a beach house,” he said, and he recalled memories such as playing football in six inches of water and mud. But it wasn’t all fun and games -- a tropical storm hit Haiti, causing destruction and chaos.

“We heard about mudslides and people being killed,” he said. “It rained for two of three straight days. You couldn’t walk anywhere without walking through a foot of water. We were sleeping on top of our cots, on top of all of our [equipment].”

The soldiers worked long and hard, with their mission being changed to humanitarian assistance. For their efforts, they were awarded Humanitarian Service medals.

Following redeployment, Matthews applied for a position in the White House. After countless screening processes, he received his top-secret clearance, only to learn the position had been filled. But, as one door closes, another opens, he said. As a result of his new clearance, he switched his career field to intelligence.

After AIT at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., the Matthews family headed to Fort Belvoir, Va. Following two years there, he headed to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, with a year-long training stop in Fort Hood, Texas. During this time, Matthews deployed twice to Asia for month-long training exercises in South Korea and Thailand.

Late in 2001, Matthews received orders to Fort Drum, N.Y. It was during his leave in conjunction with his move that the world changed.

“I was en route when 9/11 happened,” he said. “I knew my life would never be the same.”

Heading to Fort Drum without his family, Matthews received a phone call in his hotel room one night from the 10th Mountain Division intelligence sergeant major, who asked if he was interested in deploying. Needing time to adjust and settle his family into Watertown, N.Y., Matthews declined.

Instead, he was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, where he served with the rear detachment as the unit deployed to the Middle East. After a year and a half, he asked to move up to division headquarters, where he has served ever since.

During his tenure on the 10th Mountain Division intelligence staff, he has twice deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and now, to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Matthews said he has seen many changes in the Army and quality of life during these overseas tours.

“The comfort of life has greatly increased,” he said. “First-time deployers don’t really realize how good we have it. I have air conditioning, a television with cable, [and] everyone seems to have laptops now. Before, you’d be in your tent, playing cards with your buddies or writing letters home. Now, we have e-mail and instant messenger. … It’s much easier to stay in touch with home.”

With 18 years in uniform, Matthews said, his time in the Army is winding down. But, he still has dreams and aspirations before he calls it a career, such as serving as a first sergeant.

“I think that’s an achievable goal,” he said. “I’d also like to stay at [Fort] Drum. It is only four hours away from my family.”

Matthews credits his wife with the success of his overseas deployments.

“My wife has been great,” he said. “Being deployed as much as I’ve been, you need a strong family relationship. I miss her every single day.”

In his spare time here, he has a few activities he uses to unwind, including watching numerous movies and challenging his body.

“I do a lot of running events,” Matthews said. “The Army 10-miler was pretty important to me. I ran it while deployed to Afghanistan and again here. I use physical training a lot – especially running – as a stress release. When I’m running, I think about home a lot – about my family.”

Professionally, Matthews said, he considers his work in helping manage the day-to-day lives of more than 100 soldiers in the ACE as of the utmost importance.

“There are a lot of people to take care of, a lot of soldier issues to address,” he said. “I kind of embrace it. Some people don’t like doing administrative work – I like taking care of soldiers. I take care of a lot of problems. When a soldier is upset, you try to relate.”

(Spc. Josh LeCappelain serves in the Multinational Division Center public affairs office.)

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Multinational Corps Iraq

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