SACRAMENTO, Calif.--“I was 10 years old when my uncle took me to see an air show by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds at Travis Air Force Base,” remembered Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Matthews, now 38. “We passed through the entrance to the base and I saw the gate guards all dressed up and looking sharp in their uniforms. Just the way they waved us on, I knew I wanted to join the military.”
Both Matthews' parents served in the military, further solidifying his interest in donning a uniform, and at age 17 he visited a local recruiting office. U.S. forces had recently been involved in action in Iraq, Kuwait and Bosnia, but Matthews' patriotism was overshadowed by another common motivation for young people to sign on the dotted line.
Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Matthews, in front, manages the G1 Administration/Personnel platoon at the California Military Department's headquarters on June 1, 2012. (Courtesy Photo)
“I joined because I needed a job and maybe start a career,” he said. “So I took the test and the recruiter offered me jobs as a refueler, an engineer or air and missile defense. The last one intrigued me so I signed up to be an Avenger crew member.”
The Avenger is an air defense weapon system that includes Stinger missile launcher pods and a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a modified heavy High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.
“It was a wake-up call,” Matthews said recently, laughing as he recalled his initial training in 1992. “Coming from a single-parent family, I wasn't used to being told what to do, how to do it and when and where to be all the time. This, of course, being shouted in my face from a huge drill sergeant, was very intimidating. I adjusted over time, and in the end it was well worth it.”
After three years on active duty, Matthews had earned his sergeant's stripes, but he felt nothing compelled him to stay at his duty stations of Fort Lewis, Wash., and Fort Polk, La. So at age 20, he headed home to Vacaville, Calif., and took criminal justice courses at a community college, thinking that would be his next challenge in life.
But a flurry of action that year would change his life forever.
“I missed the military after being out for a short period,” he said. “I spotted a flyer on campus for the California Army National Guard. I didn't know they existed, but I liked the idea a lot. I joined the 100th Troop Command in Fairfield, and a few years later applied for a full-time counterdrug position and was hired. However, the job was in El Centro on the border.”
Matthews uprooted his life and moved more than 600 miles to Calexico. While there, in 1994, his first daughter, Brianna, was born.
Matthews moved back up north and bounced around in different Army positions, even turning in his Avenger badge in 1997 to retrain as an infantryman for 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, in Auburn. Then in 1998 he accepted an Active Guard and Reserve job and again retrained, this time as a human resource specialist.
Arianna, his second daughter, was born that same year, and two years later he married Melissa, whom he had met at church. Melissa was also in the military, working with an active duty recruiting battalion in administration, and had a daughter of her own, Keya.
In 2001, Matthews joined the ranks of the 115th Regional Support Group out of Roseville, serving as the group's full-time training noncommissioned officer (NCO). In the same year he added another milestone.
“I had my third daughter, Kaylyn,” Matthews said nonchalantly. “Yep, I now have Brianna, Arianna, Keya, and now Kaylyn.”
In 2005 he deployed to Kuwait as the readiness NCO for the 115th. The unit was in charge of rolling out the red carpet for troops entering the Iraq and Afghanistan combat zones. They also were the pat-on-the-back and check-the-box processors for troops returning stateside. They managed facilities and lodging like landlords and were gracious hosts to the multitude of international forces surging back and forth battling terrorism.
With four daughters and a wife to worry about, Matthews wondered how his deployment would affect his family. But Melissa was his rock, that key weapon he needed in his arsenal.
“She joined the California National Guard in 2004 and was able to get hired full-time. We knew one of us could deploy,” he said. “When I got the word, I felt worried about the whole situation but knew my duty was to go. Because of what I had been through and how the Guard was always there to look after me and my family, I was so appreciative of what they have done, it was an honor to return the favor.”
While he was gone, Matthews badly missed his family, but in a different way than most troops nowadays, since the revolution of social media and video chatting.
“It was strange not seeing them,” he said. “We didn't have Skype or other ways I could see my family, so we emailed, chatted live and wrote letters. Six months in, I took leave for two weeks and came home. That was a short two weeks.”
After 15 months away, he returned to his wife and squad of children. Since then he has worked with the 49th Human Resources Company and played an important role in deploying 12-person teams to conduct reception, replacement, return-to-duty, rest and recuperation, and redeployment operations in Iraq and Kuwait. Later he joined the Guard's Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which once again gave him the opportunity to help other soldiers and their families connect with community support before, during and after deployments.
Throughout all his station and duty changes, Matthews has taken his job, career and service very seriously.
“I love this country,” he said. “The idea that I can lace up my boots, put on a uniform with the American flag and serve and defend it makes me feel like I'm providing a vital role.
“We all want something better for our children, and if I can do something about that today so they can have a better tomorrow, then I will.”
Having the support of one's family is critical throughout a veteran's career. Being married to someone who also serves is, well, interesting.
“It has its ups and downs. Well, let me make sure I have my words correct,” Matthews laughed. “On one hand, she gets it. She understands the time needed to be away from home, like for a deployment, school or long training drill. So a lot of what other couples have to explain to each other, we don't for the most part. That is a huge weight off our shoulders.”
But it isn't all easy.
“On the other hand, we were almost always in uniform together,” he says with a smile. “We had very little decompressing from all things military.”
As Matthews closes in on retirement, he is looking back at what has brought him through the past two decades and what it means to be a veteran.
“I'll miss all this. The military is all I know, and it will be a sad exit,” he said. “I've met some amazing people and wish I would have kept better contact. I've enjoyed mentoring young leaders when I saw the opportunity. I feel I have been through enough to provide guidance and be a positive role model.”
He added that the support of his community was always greatly important to him.
“For me it was always a ‘Thank you' or ‘How can we help?' that made me feel people were aware of our job and sacrifices,” he said. “Not being forgotten with all that is going on meant a lot. We miss so much and can't get those days back, but at the same time I am proud of my contribution to battling the war on terrorism.”
Kaylyn, his youngest, calls him her hero. For a father of four that means the world to him.
By U.S. Army National Guard Master Sgt. Paul Wade
Provided through DVIDS
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