The Other Reasons series, while dominated by essay responses, started out as a simple Q&A. We wanted to see what brought different people into service, and hoped civilian readers would find shades of their own stories in the answers, some tiny connective thread that could be followed towards a deeper conversation. The thing about Matt Young is that he’s answered these questions a thousand times over, through essays and interviews with Time, Task & Purpose, Vox, and in his unsparing memoir, Eat the Apple, which has shades of Tim O’Brien while being wholly original and essential reading for our era of conflict. We’re glad to be able to share this written interview as an introduction to his impressive and growing body of work, and we hope you follow his thread into bigger conversations about our shared roles in the past two decades of war.
Talk On: When and why did you join, and why did you choose the particular branch in which you served?
Matt: I walked into a recruiter’s office on a Sunday morning in February of 2005 after drunkenly ramming my car into a fire hydrant on my way back to a party from Steak ’n Shake. I’d been out of high school for a year and thought my Midwest town was sucking the life out of me and that I’d end up a cliché if I stayed around. My family didn’t have money and I’m impulsive and didn’t think through my options and the recruiting station was on the way home so I walked in and the Marine Corps was the only office open that early on a Sunday. So I joined the Marines. Joining the infantry was less impulsive. I signed up for the infantry because I felt, on some level, that I needed to be punished. I was young and angry and I wanted to hurt people and also be hurt.
Talk On: What did you do to prepare yourself for the military?
Matt: I didn’t leave for boot camp until April 2005 so I did have some time to contemplate my impulsive decision after I made it. Though, it only made me go all in on my decision; I went to recruiting station functions and did physical training every week with the recruiters and other potential recruits. I learned my general orders, how to march—basic first-week boot camp stuff. At the time it felt like a lot, I felt ready. About a week into boot camp I realized I was completely lost in the sauce and had no idea how anything in the military worked. I didn’t even know I would go to another two months of training at the School of Infantry after boot camp. I don’t think there’s any way to fully prepare. That’s kind of the point.
Talk On: What was your family and friends’ reaction to your decision to join? Did their viewpoint change or shift over your time in service?
Matt: I don’t know. I never asked, and they never said anything. Or it was of such little consequence I don’t remember their reactions now. Or I didn’t care what they had to say so I blocked it out. I had one ex-girlfriend ask me not to go because she thought I would die. I don’t talk about my enlistment with my family. They don’t ask, and I don’t want it to be a big part of my identity now so I try not to bring it up if I can help it.
Talk On: What units did you serve in? Where did you serve and deploy?
Matt: I was a rifleman (0311) with Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment (3/5) out of Camp Pendleton, CA. When they put us with the battalion after we graduated from the School of Infantry I thought I’d go to a line company with the other riflemen, but I ended up with Weapons Company because of my last name. Myself and one other Marine at the end of the alphabet ended up with Weapons. We cross-trained with 81mm mortars, and I became a mortar gunner.
When we deployed to Iraq in January 2006, there wasn’t a whole lot of use for indirect fire, so our command turned us into mobile assault platoons, which were basically combined anti-armor teams that patrolled in Humvees and used mortarmen as dismounts. So really, I ended up doing the thing I’d originally trained for.
I deployed twice (2006, and then between 2007 and 2008) with 3/5 to Iraq—both to Al Anbar, the area around Fallujah.
After my second deployment I and a bunch of others only had a year left, which meant we didn’t have enough time for another training workup and deployment. Our command turned us into camp maintenance workers—we painted curbs and weeded and police-called parking lots and raked gravel.
And then there was a call for volunteers to do a six-month deployment to Iraq to replace some Marines who were ending their active service and who were on the personal security detail for the Fifth Marine Regimental Commander. A lot of us jumped at the chance. Iraq seemed better—time would go faster, we’d get to carry guns again instead of rakes and paint cans, we’d get to do the things grunts are supposed to do. So my third deployment (mid-2008 to early 2009) I deployed again to Iraq, but that time to Al Asad Air Base. I spent a lot of time around the Haditha area and near some part of the Syrian border that I don’t remember the name of.
Talk On: Did you reenlist? How many times? Did your reasons for doing so match your reasons for joining or had they changed? What were they, if different?
Matt: I did not reenlist. I’d become cynical and disillusioned and belligerent by that point—unsalvageable. The scum of the battalion, said First Sergeant on my second deployment after he caught me outside the wire without my helmet on. Later, when life got hard—school, relationship, job, whatever—I did want to reenlist. That world was a known point for me, everything else outside that known point was horrifying because it wasn’t certain, because I didn’t get orders, because I had to make it up as I went along without some kind of structure guiding me. That’s not to say my time in military was easy, but it was a kind of difficult with which I was familiar. Sometimes I want to reenlist now, knowing everything I know, I want to go back and be a better Marine, a better leader, a better man. I don’t know if that feeling will ever stop its ebb and flow.
Talk On: What do you consider was the defining moment of your time in service? Was it surprising or did it fit your reason for joining in the first place?
Matt: The defining moment for me—the moment I think most about now whenever I think about my enlistment—is leaving. It was so anticlimactic. I used two weeks of leave I had saved up and left early; drove back to Indiana for the summer before I started school in Oregon. We had a party the night before at a bar in town. I got drunk. Woke up the next morning. Smoked a cigarette with a friend who wouldn’t get out for another month. Hugged that friend. Promised to stay in touch. Got in my car alone and drove away. It felt lonely in a way nothing else had in the military up to that point. It felt like leaving something behind, and it felt heavy. Like all of the previous four years were packed in that car with me, but instead of having my platoon mates and friends to lean on I didn’t have anyone. And it felt odd to just go and not come back. No one escorted me off the base, no one inspected my gear or double-checked my packing list. One minute I was in, the next I was out.
Talk On: What were your biggest misconceptions about service before joining?
Matt: So many. The biggest was probably attempting to conceive of what war would be like. I built my conceptions around movies—most of those were Vietnam flicks like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and We Were Soldiers. War itself is a big thing with a single definition but as an individual experience it’s nuanced and complicated. My experience is no one else’s and no one else’s is mine.
Talk On: Did your time in the military meet the expectations you had when joining? If not, where did it fall short? If it exceeded them, how so?
Matt: Because I joined on such impulse I didn’t have many expectations.
I expected to die because my recruiter told me I would die if I joined the infantry and my senior Marines told us we would die when they told us we were deploying to Fallujah (because they had been through Operation Al Fajr in 2004-2005). I didn’t die. So the military failed to meet my expectations. Although I am happy I’m not dead, so maybe it exceeded my expectations.
That’s a glib response.
Here’s a better one: I expected to go to war. The Marines sent me to war. Expectation met.
Here’s maybe a better one: I expected to go to war and the Marines sent me to war. Being sent to war met my expectations. War itself did not meet my expectations because it was not a movie about Vietnam.
Here’s another: Before I went in, I didn’t expect the aftermath of my service—lesions in my brain, chronic pain, posttraumatic stress, hearing loss, depression, anxiety, survivor’s guilt—because when I was eighteen I was an invincible teenage cliché like most teenagers. Before I went in, I didn’t expect to have to pay the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for my undergraduate degree, but I did because the rules for the GI Bill changed. Before I went in, I didn’t expect that I’d eventually be conflicted about my service, what I did during the war, but I am. I am proud at times and I am ashamed at times. Before I went in I didn’t expect it would all eventually feel like most anything else I’ve done in my life. I didn’t think life would go on. But it did, and it does.
Matt Young is a writer, teacher, and veteran. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Miami University and is the recipient of fellowships from Words After War and The Carey Institute for Global Good. You can find his work in Catapult, Granta, Tin House, TIME, LitHub and elsewhere. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Centralia College and lives in Olympia, Washington. His first book, a memoir titled Eat the Apple, was called “the Iliad of the Iraq War” by Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Weiner.