‘Facing Stigma’ with Matt L.
“I grew up in the Cleveland area; not a lot of folks were joining the military around there, but my dad had served in the Coast Guard. It’s not something he talked about or necessarily pushed, but military service definitely intrigued me. I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened and shortly after that I made my mind up that I definitely wanted to serve. I decided to join ROTC and go to college at Mercyhurst in Pennsylvania and commission as an officer. I graduated in 2006 and commissioned in the Army as a Second Lieutenant. I was stationed at Ft. Bragg at the 525th Intelligence Brigade for a large part of my career. My unit was tasked with multiple capabilities and had the opportunity Special Operation Forces. We were an all-in-one tactical targeting team that would do a mix of targeted raids using intelligence, on target explorations, speaking with detainees, and more. We wound up getting deployed to Iraq in 2007–2008. We integrated with the 82nd Airborne and would do raids over there, often times catching the enemy sleeping. Our team was really lucky in regards to avoiding some of the more traumatic casualties that the rest of our area of operations experienced. My team was only hit by one IED (Improvised Explosive Device) with no casualties during my time over there; however, some of these other units had a lot more kinetic experiences with snipers, IED’s, etc. I never realized how keyed up I was from my experience over there until I got home. That was my only deployment and I spent the rest of my career building cyber units before cyber was really a branch. I found myself at a crossroads and decided not to re-enlist after doing nearly eight years in the Army. The transition out of the military was unexpectedly more difficult than I thought it would be.
When I separated it took me a while to get a job and even when I did, it wasn’t even close to the same leadership role. In some regard I understood, but it also mystified me. I had spent an entire Army career leading soldiers into combat and creating new teams in cyberspace and then all of a sudden I wasn’t qualified to lead anyone in the civilian world. I realized people are not going to just make the extra effort to understand your world. You have to learn how you can fit into their narrative and then prove your worth. I think my early frustrations with the job market mixed with some of this built up anger I had suppressed started to come out. Once it started to impact my wife and our marriage, I knew I needed to get help; however, in the intel world we’re hesitant to reach out for help due to clearances and what we are able to disclose. Ironically I saw a Facebook ad about Headstrong and I reached out to inquire how it worked. I learned that it was confidential and cost-free so I decided to give it a try. Headstrong helped me deal with my anger and depression in an enormous way. My therapist, Kathleen, is fantastic and her only expectation is just to continue coming each week so that I can continue to get better. It’s helpful to have somebody else listen to you and offer that outside perspective. I’ve recommended the program to so many other veterans because it’s important to get the help you need to deal with how your military service impacted you: right, wrong or indifferent. One of the biggest things I’ve realized is that the military prepares you for the physical aspect, but there needs to be more training from an emotional standpoint. Equipping individuals to handle the mental stressors and developing the strength and resilience for life is just as much mental as it is physical. I learned these lessons from Headstrong and life after the military and I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I’ve learned from my past experiences and I’m no longer clinging to my identity of what I was in the military. Now I can close that chapter and start writing another.”