Accountability

September 24, 2014
Matthew Thompson

As a kid, the reason you join the military is usually born of some desire to have an adventure or escape; that was my reason at least. Being a teenager in Philadelphia with limited opportunities for college atop wanderlust and a shortage of an appropriate fear response, the military was all too appealing. I was sufficiently satisfied with my first experience in the military: five years in the United States Navy aboard a giant floating city that seemed ever deployed to blue-green seascapes and foreign shores.

I was truly sad to separate from the life I had cultivated in the Navy. It was a world steeped in tradition, romance and adventure but I felt as though I had done what I came to do and now I should be moving on to things that were “normal”.  However, after just a few months of “normal” I found myself meeting with an Army recruiter.  I sat across the desk of a man who was anything but camouflaged in the all-gray maze of cubical partitions and Army recruitment posters. He feverishly tip-tapped on a computer looking for an opportunity that benefitted both the Army and myself — but mostly the Army.

Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson takes The Mission Continues Fellowship Oath in July 2013 – pledging life-long service to his community.

I had a difficult time trying to bridge the dissonance as to why I was there. Why would I again be joining the military? Was I bored, directionless, poor? Well, yes, all of those. But there was something buried deeper that I was less prepared to articulate, and still find to be almost entirely indescribable. So there I was, two weeks later in Fort Knox, Kentucky, sweating to death and violently slapping the mosquitos from my flesh as I marched, ran, crawled, jumped and charged through “HIP-DUCK” confidence course, up “Misery” and down “Heartache” cursing myself with each bursting blister. Why!? Why was I volunteering to do this to myself? I knew I was going to get deployed, I knew there was nothing but variations of hard road ahead, I knew this — all of it, I knew — yet still I put pen to paper, made my mark, and shook the hand of a giant green-clad recruiter and smiled in relief.

Four years, several hundred ass-chewings, and a million miles of physical training later, I was out again. And dammit, I was at the recruiters office … again.  This time it was the Tennessee National Guard.  I would love to tell the story of how in the world I wound up in Tennessee, but I think the Internet has a word limit and the story just wouldn’t fit.  Regardless, there I was in the parking lot, just looking down the row of offices in the strip mall: Navy, Army, Marines and Air Force — all ducks in a row with skinny kids moving in and out of offices, some with parents in tow, some alone. I stood for a few moments trying to connect the dots that lead me here and it all started to fall into place. I felt responsibility.  Not a punitive responsibility like that of having to get a job done on time or face the wrath of an ornery platoon sergeant, but an urgent, magnetic pull to be present.

For a long time I thought the reason I was so compelled to be in the military was because it was all I knew, which, in its defense, was true.  But it wasn’t until recently that I was able to develop the language to properly describe that compulsion.  Even now, though, I’m still not entirely sure that the words I have can describe it justly.  Let’s just call it “accountability”.  We all know the golden rule: leave no soldier behind.  As cliché as it sounds, I felt that that is exactly what I was doing each time I would separate from the military; I was abandoning my comrades.  Without my knowing, the military had ignited in me a fire with an insatiable appetite to fight. Not just for a war but for those who fought wars. I had a tremendous and heartbreaking calling to be there for soldiers in every capacity. I could feel it tugging, if not tearing, at my insides. Someplace there was a young man or woman from nowhere U.S.A. who was confused and scared; who was embarking on a path that was unspeakably terrifying and I knew that I had a tested ability to guide them.

But could I do that from my couch?

Because of an illness related to my last deployment, I was considered no longer fit for military service. Needless to say, I was devastated. It took a very long time and extensive amounts of counseling for me to finally come to terms with the fact that I would no longer be able to serve, and for a while there I was utterly lost. Months started to pass and I would hear from my soldiers as they were preparing to deploy again. Correspondence would come from APO’s and AKO’s addressed to SSG Thompson and I would whimper as I read of firefights and IED’s, promotions and demotions, etc. I was totally impotent.

Through my own counseling and recovery, I eventually discovered there was a way I could still engage with soldiers in a way that was important and valuable: through counseling.  Through my own misadventures with Veterans Affairs, I became an expert in navigating the system and learning the benefits.  Soon I was meeting with other vets and helping them navigate the maze of benefits and programs.  Eventually I started to witness those men and women move from a place of stagnation and confusion into a life that was again meaningful and productive, and I found purpose.  Not only did I feel valuable again but I felt on fire with an immense passion for a whole new community.  I was able to deduce that counseling soldiers is really no different than counseling veterans.  The confusion and fear that existed in both communities was almost identical — and I could help.

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Matthew Thompson educates to students at Vanderbilt University Law School on veteran issues during his Mission Continues Fellowship.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that the military taught me a lot more than how to clean a rifle and march in rank and file. It taught me that I had the ability to evoke change in people’s lives.  I feel that each of us who — for one reason or another — decided to raise our right hand has in us a courage and a purpose that could not be contained in a regular existence.  I know that inside me burns a fire that when properly focused could illuminate the lives of those around me. And I know that same fire exists in each of us who swore the oath.

I went to war and brought some of that fight home with me, and I’ll be damned if I don’t fight just as hard here and now as I did then and there.  I’m accountable, always.

Thompson, out.

Matthew Thompson is an alumni of The Mission Continues Fellowship Program. He served his fellowship with Operation Stand Down in Nashville, Tennessee.