“We had about three weeks left in Iraq, and then we were gonna be packing up and heading back home. We were occupying a building [that] was part of the Iraqi government complex. The insurgents tried to overrun it by force. They started dropping mortars on us. About 150 insurgents tried to overrun our position,” Matthew Garvey, long-term English substitute for Kathryn Schaefer, said. “At the same time, they took a dump truck loaded with 15,000 pounds of explosives. They drove it into our entrance and blew it up. I remember thinking in my head, ‘well at least I know how I’m going to die. I’m gonna get blown up.’”
Garvey, who studied education and history at the University of Missouri St. Louis, is not ignorant of teaching. In 2016, he spent time as a long-term English substitute at McCluer North High School. However, before Garvey began his teaching career, he was working first hand with the United States foreign affairs. When Garvey was 24, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and soon after was deployed to Iraq as an infantry rifleman.
“I had two brothers that went in before me. I saw what the Marine Corps had done for both of them. I had an overwhelming feeling that operation Iraqi freedom [was] going to be the defining moment of my generation,” Garvey said. “It seems that every generation has this war,”
Garvey’s family has an extensive history with the US Armed Forces. His grandpa fought in World War II, and many of his uncles were in the military. His father additionally lived through the entire Vietnam War. His inspiration for joining the Marine Corps stemmed from his militaresque genealogy, and that two of the closest people to him, his younger brothers, were in the Marine Corps.
“I would sit and I would talk with a lot of people, and I would brag about my brothers. I would talk about how they’re in the marines and how they’re doing all these really awesome things,” Garvey said. “It seemed that everyone that I talked to that was older always had the same response. They always said, ‘I was going to join the marines, or I was going to join the military but…’ They always had an excuse that they were coming up with. I just knew that there was no way I could grow up and be in my 40s or 50s when you’re too old to join and look back and think, ‘I could’ve done that.’”
Garvey lives his life free of any regret. And the idea that he would be potentially missing a life changing experience was what finally pushed him over the edge to signing his name into service.
Destroyed buildings and shops in Fallujah, Iraq. (Mohammed al Dulaimy/MCT)
“I also had an overwhelming sense of service because there’s a lot of people in the world that are born with certain disabilities, and even if they wanted to they couldn’t do the physical things that we do,” Garvey said. “I just didn’t want to have that regret of knowing that I could’ve contributed and I could’ve done something and I could’ve been a part of something great.”
Before Garvey could begin training, he was required to take a baseline test in order to determine which jobs he would excel at. The results of the test showed the Garvey would be exceptional in nearly every job available with the Marine Corps. The recruiting officer suggested that Garvey choose a technologically based job. However, Garvey was determined to be right where the action was; he wanted to be in the infantry.
“He really tried talking me out of it. If I was going to work at a computer job in the military I would join the Air Force. They have much more of that technology,” he said. “I’m not joining the military to get some kind of technical training. I’m joining the Marine Corps because there’s a war going on and I want to go fight.”
The recruiter was an infantry veteran and knew that it was not an adequate fit for the majority of enlistees. Unbeknownst to the recruiter, Garvey was one of the few that fit right into the infantry.
“Our job is to take the fight to the enemy, and in order to do that, you have to be at peak physical and mental condition. Before each one of my deployments, we had six months of training to prepare for that,” Garvey said. “It was six months straight of you’re up at four in the morning every day, and you go, go, go until midnight. You have a few hours to rack out and then you’re going at it again.”
In October of 2006, Garvey finally arrived in Fallujah, Iraq, and was given the role of squad leader for a group of 12 marines.
Controlling the insurgents was not the only daily task of Garvey and his comrades.
“When we were in Iraq we focused a lot on nation-building as well. Not the nicest place to be in the world at that time. We kind of lived and died by a saying call, “no better friend, no worse enemy.” We fought as hard as we could when needed be, but when it was time to be friendly with them we really lived by that no better friend part,” Garvey said.
According to Garvey, the local families were incredibly caring, despite the foreign encroachment of the Americans. The soldiers repaid the citizens of Fallujah for their unwavering hospitality.
“We opened up the first elementary schools: three elementary schools in Fallujah. None of the kids had gone to school since the war started in 2003,” Garvey said. “We installed their first ever sewage line. They never had any sort of sewage in the city before we got there.”
Garvey and his compatriots even went so far as to repair the deficient electrical grid of the city.
“Before we showed up 70 percent of the city had power 50 percent of the time. When we left we had power pushing to 90 percent of the city 100 percent of the time, so the power never went out,” Garvey said. “They had a lot of blackouts when we first got there.”
His company even worked to support the local government and police and military forces.
“We helped run recruiting drives for the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army. [We] supervised some of their first democratic elections that they had had since the Saddam-Hussein regime,” Garvey said. “We did a lot of good things over there.” While doing this, Garvey became acquainted with some of the police officers and soldiers involved.
In Iraq, Garvey would have to personally enter the houses of the citizens for various reasons.
“I was probably in 1000 houses at least in my time over there. Sometimes you would have to search the house. A lot of times we were just using their rooftop as an overwatch position,” Garvey said. “Other people would be running operations in the area, and we would have overlook positions.We were just looking around, making sure everything was okay. I spoke a little bit of Arabic, so I was able to converse with the families. We always had to bring them into one room so we could keep an eye on everybody. I would always try to be extra friendly with the families because we were inconveniencing them [for[ sometimes for six, eight or 10 hours.”
Map locating Fallujah, Iraq. (Davis/Tribune News Service 2015)
The searches did not always run as expected.
“One of the times we were in an apartment. [There] was just a dad and a kid, and I was playing with him. He bit my finger. He was probably four years old, and I thought that he was just kind of playing around,” Garvey said. “He bit so hard that he actually broke the skin on my finger. I kind of feel bad because I had to slap him and then he cried to his dad, but his dad got even more mad at him for biting.”
According to Garvey, one of the more common injuries to American soldiers in Iraq are concussions. However, different military personnel often chose to handle the injury differently.
“I had several concussions when I was over there. I didn’t report it because if you had a concussion they would basically pull you off the front lines,” Garvey said. “I had friends over there who had pretty major concussions, and for two to three weeks they couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do that. You have a big sense of brotherhood and duty.”
Garvey did decide to report one concussion, but immediately regretted his decision.
“It was the worst feeling in the world because if anything happened to those guys, and I wasn’t there with them, it would have been the most horrible feeling,” Garvey said. “I wasn’t going to do anything that would keep me from my platoon. When I did have a few concussions, I didn’t say anything to anybody.”
Now, seven years after returning from the Middle Eastern state, Garvey is still affected by these head traumas.
“After I had been back for about six months, it was then I really started to realize I had some problems. I had pretty much no short-term memory,” Garvey said. “I would forget appointments. I had a lot of insomnia [and] headaches.” Garvey also falls victim to an interminable ringing in his left ear. Additionally, Garvey claims it is nearly impossible to comprehend the overlapping discussions of students in the classroom.
Even though his six years of service induced incessant repercussions, Garvey would not choose to relive those six years any differently.
“I felt that I had really been blessed by God with a good mind, a good body and a good spirit,” Garvey said. “I felt that if I wasn’t utilizing my gifts that God had given me to its ultimate potential, then I feel like I would just be letting myself down.”