In the pitch blackness and
pre-dawn stillness, his booming voice alone was enough to send
several dozen new trainees into a frenzied scramble from the comfort
of their bunks. His scowl was enough to keep those trainees frozen
into a formation of stone figures.
Air Force Tech. Sgt.
Matthew Zien was one of those military training instructors who
seemed to have boundless energy, rousing new troops long before dawn
and taking care of issues long after sunset. He was a textbook MTI.
That's what would make it hard to believe that Zien would be
struggling with his life less than a year after turning in his
campaign hat, dealing with an unforeseen illness that would not only
threaten his life, but send him into the depths of despair, putting
that MTI strength to the ultimate test.
Zien was stationed in
Thule, Greenland, when, after a routine dental exam, his health took
a slow decline, beginning with an irregular heartbeat, and would
eventually turn into pneumonia and finally find him at death's door,
hooked up to a life support system, not expected to live.
was unable to walk more than seven or eight steps without having to
stop to catch my breath,” Zien said. “All of my joints began hurting
and my legs felt like they were on fire. My taste buds went
completely sour and I completely lost my appetite.”
steady decline in health, with recurring bouts of pneumonia, and
swelling of his legs and feet, Zien went ahead with a scheduled
leave to Alabama, where, within 12 hours of his arrival, he was in
the emergency room. After the ER nurse hooked Zien to an EKG, she
was startled with the printout, summoning doctors to look at the
Doctors told Zien his heart was massively
enlarged, and that he was suffering from a severe case of bacterial
endocarditis, edema, severe aortic insufficiency, severe mitral
valve regurgitation, pneumonia and congestive heart failure. “My
heart was working at 25 percent efficiency, and because it was
beating so fast and so hard, for so long, it actually grew muscle,”
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Zien speaks to students for
Veterans Day at Cimarron Elementary in Aurora, Colo., Nov. 13, 2013.
Zien hit his lowest low when he nearly lost his life in 2012 to
medical issues, and relapsed into post-traumatic stress syndrome. He
uses public speaking engagements and mentoring sessions to inspire
resiliency for both the public and the airmen he works with. (U.S.
Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Vucic)
He was then taken to a hospital that specialized in
cardiac surgery, where, during an operation that would
include 42 hours of induced coma, he would have two heart
valves replaced and a type of vegetation cleared from around
his heart. During the operation, his vital organs began to
shut down in a domino effect. With family and friends
gathered round, the prognosis for the former MTI was bleak.
Zien would survive the operations and begin a slow road
to recovery. But according to Zien, the surgery was the easy
part. “The recovery from this has been overwhelmingly
humbling. Physically, I have recovered extremely fast and
I've maintained a strong, optimistic and positive attitude.
The real battle with this recovery has been psychological.”
As he recovered, his mind began to play tricks on him
and he began to hear the ticking of the metal replacement
valves in his heart, something he compares to Edgar Alan
Poe's “the Tell-Tale Heart.” Zien said he would lie in bed
at night and listen to the valves in his heart and every
tick would tell him that he had somehow failed.
nightmares were unbelievable,” he said. “I dreamt of my
death thousands of times, and it seemed that every time I
would close my eyes I would die. It completely consumed me.”
But the nail that would drive the normally optimistic
and positive Zien to contemplate suicide would be one that
affected what he held closest to his heart – his children.
“I got a letter in the mail requesting full legal and
sole custody of my kids,” Zien said. “My kids are my life. I
was put on this planet to be a father. I know this for a
fact. My thought process was whether or not I would rather
have my kids not know who I was.”
At that point Zien
said he had several plans in mind to take his own life. He
hated his heart to the point where he decided to stop taking
his heart medication, jumped on his bike and rode 85 miles
to inflict as much damage as he could. He became dizzy,
crashed, but survived. It was then he decided it was time
“I had to admit to myself that I was
powerless. I knew for a fact that nobody's going to fix it
but me. It couldn't be anybody else. It had to be me...but I
couldn't do it.”
It was then that Zien dug deep into
his MTI roots, reinforcing the lessons he taught his
trainees. He said that when things began to get negative, he
would visualize MTI Zien pushing him to stay on course and
not quit. He began setting goals, some as simple as getting
out of bed each morning without a negative thought. Then it
was to make coffee each morning, again without any type of
“The good thing about action is
that it created momentum, which in turn, enabled further
action,” he said.
The momentum in Zien's case would
come in the form of the Wounded Warrior program. Although he
didn't see himself as a wounded warrior, Zien was invited to
join them for a sports camp, and feels that the encounter
has changed his life.
“It's because of the Air Force
Wounded Warrior program that I am where I am,” Zien said.
“Even just knowing those wounded warriors on a personal
level has lifted me up to a point I can't imagine.”
Set to be medically retired in the months ahead, Zien is
giving back, using his story of resiliency to influence
other airmen and community members. Even though he is still
considered a patient at the Buckley Air Force Base clinic in
Colo., he has become more of a mentor than a victim.
“With everything he's been through, his positivity is really
inspiring,” said Airman 1st Class Hannah Metz, a medical
technician assigned to the 460th Medical Group.
makes me want to teach other airmen,” added Airman 1st Class
Christina Miller, an aerospace medical services apprentice.
Today Zien said that when he wakes up each morning, he
places his hand over his heart and embraces who he is. He
moves forward with a daily goal of having a good day and
making an impact on someone else's life. “It's amazing how
much it has helped me to help other people. Creating this
environment I need to be in has actually helped me to get
By USAF Airman 1st Class Zachary Vucic
American Forces Press Service
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