These were extreme views, yet as some of my classmates laughed that evening, images of the soldiers my unit had lost swirled in my head. Brave men who had died serving a cause they believed in didn’t deserve such desecration, I thought. I sought advice from a professor about how to manage the raw emotions these interactions provoked. Her response, as she later wrote in my performance evaluation, was hardly encouraging: “I would advise that Matt refrain from working in Iraq until he feels comfortable maintaining an emotional distance from his old life, so as not to impair his journalistic judgment.”
Had I made a big mistake? Could anyone ever trust me to be completely neutral where the military was concerned? Could I trust myself?
After graduation in May 2008, I needed to decompress. I interned in Paris and copyedited in Russia. In both places, talk of America’s endless wars was mostly absent. The months-long interlude gave me time to develop my craft uninfluenced by politics back home. I got used to the rhythm of a newsroom, the pressure of a deadline. I’d been out of the Army for a year and a half, and I felt more and more detached from my old life. My earlier goal of covering the military seemed less likely. I rarely mentioned my military service to strangers.
In December, I returned to the United States to take my first reporting job at The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. I was surprised when, after only a few weeks on the job, my editor offered me the chance to cover the military. The offer signaled to me for the first time that maybe I was through the worst of it. Perhaps I had rounded the corner from an earlier time when my reporting might still have been biased. I took the position without reservation.
My tenure was, unfortunately, short-lived. One evening in mid-February, a day after reporting a story about a star Marine recruiter in New Jersey, I was walking back to my apartment in Manhattan when I got a worried voicemail from my mother. I called her back immediately.
“I’m sorry,” she kept repeating. “I’m just so sorry.” My first thought was that someone had died.
Earlier that day, she’d received a letter from the Army ordering me back for a third combat tour. Just like that. The chance I would be reactivated during my three-year obligation in the reserves was so remote that I had honestly believed it would never happen. Yet it did, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I’d be going back to war again, this time to Afghanistan.
As I write, my deployment is days away. The last few weeks shuttling between training bases in South Carolina, Missouri, and Mississippi have given me time to contemplate my transformation from soldier to reporter and back again.
What I’ve discovered is something people like my battalion commander back in 2007 would do well to understand: in America, journalism and the military are more akin than members of either profession appreciate. Whether they wield rifles or pads and pens, soldiers and journalists join their professions because they are committed to fighting for an ideal larger than themselves, be it freedom or truth or justice.
I’ve come to see this new assignment as the best chance I may ever have to help close the gap between the two cultures. I believed once that my experience as a soldier would enhance my contribution to journalism. I’d like to think that it has. All I can hope now is that the reverse will also be true.