An Army Officer's Humble Beginnings
by Jason Schaap, U.S. Army Recruiting Command
January 14, 2021
Matthew Mickey was in a dark place. There was an invisible wall
there, and his back was pushed up against it. The world, it seemed,
was coming down upon him from all directions. And he wanted out.
So when he walked up to a North Carolina recruiting station, he
didn’t care who gave him the ticket to ride away.
takes me, takes me,” he said to himself. “I’m gonna try ‘em all.”
But he would only try one.
“What’s up bud?” Mickey
remembers an Army recruiter asking him outside, before the homeless
teen ever stepped into the station.
The date was September 12, 2001. Mickey spent the previous
morning watching hijacked airplanes change the world forever. His
shock quickly turned to anger. His anger turned to action. His
action was, he knows now, not so simple.
1st Lt. Matthew Mickey at an undisclosed location on November 13, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Lara Poirrier, Recruiting Command)
“My nation needed
me,” he said. “That part of it is true. But the whole truth isn’t as
patriotic. It really was a cry for help. I know that sounds
dramatic, but my life was very dramatic at the time. I couldn’t
fathom moving on alone, and I didn’t want to try.”
Mickey was born
in 1984. Ask him where, and he’s not so certain. Dallas, Texas, most
likely. His parents were travelers, he was told, but he has no
memory of them. He entered Maryland’s foster care system when he was
2 or 3. His only knowledge of life before then came later from
foster parents and counselors.
“They said they found me in an old shack,” he
remembered. “They were feeding me beer instead of milk because they
couldn’t afford both.”
Mickey doesn’t know who his father is.
His biological mother is dead. A grandmother who took in his
half-sister didn’t want him. He entered the foster system alone and
remained that way the rest of his childhood.
The early years
were spent bouncing “from foster home to foster home to foster
home.” Parents came and went. Foster siblings came and went. Usually
after giving him something to remember them by.
“I (got) into
a lot of fights with other foster kids,” he said. “That was a
It was the older ones that liked to pin him
against walls, he remembered.
“Those boys tortured me,” he
For an escape, he often turned to a world where people
lifted each other up. Where they counted on each other. Where
leaders were born.
“I used to play a lot of backyard
imaginary sports games,” he said. “Like football, basketball,
pretending I was on a team playing a championship.”
and Shaq often showed up to play in Mickey’s imagination. The
scenarios, like for so many other young fans, borrowed from big
games on TV. Exposure to television, however, was not common for him
then. He had to choose what he liked most for the little time he was
allowed. He was drawn to sports.
“That was the only thing I
ever watched,” he said. “I picked it because it was a team effort.
As a young kid, that is what I lacked in life…In foster care, nobody
(was) a leader. Nobody (was on) a team.”
Mickey was 13 when
he lived with a foster family outside Washington D.C. His foster
parents provided a place to sleep and three meals, but required him
to be out of the house otherwise. The door was locked, and he was
not allowed in.
“I was allowed to use public transit,” he
said, “but I wasn’t allowed to use the phone or watch TV.”
found family elsewhere the best he could. Sometimes it was with
friends. Often it was not. Mickey liked discovering things. A
weird-looking tree in the woods. An old, rusted-out car. Things like
him. Alone in the world.
“Even though I had a rough
childhood, I still saw value in people, and places, and things,” he
said. “I still had an appreciation.”
Homeless High Schooler
Mickey’s foster family moved to Asheville, North Carolina, just
before his high school years. It was a big switch.
In D.C., he
always felt targeted as one of the only Caucasian students. In North
Carolina, he found a lot of racism toward African-Americans.
“I didn’t like that at all,” Mickey said. “I always found myself in
conflict…Back then, I had a chip on my shoulder. I had a lot of pent
up aggressiveness that I did not know how to channel correctly.”
The inevitable happened. Skipping school. Wrong crowds. Bad
At 16, he had foster parents who qualified for
social security. They were traditional folk. Mickey liked the loud
sounds of Metallica and Pantera. Something had to give.
kind of kicked me out, and I kind of left willingly,” he said.
From 16 to 18, he was a homeless high schooler.
lived in his car. Sometimes he lived a rerun of foster life, jumping
from one friend’s house to another, to another. He took work
wherever he could find it. McDonald’s janitor. Grocery store jobs.
He worked in commercial plumbing and construction after school
during his senior year. Shifts often finished long after midnight.
He would then walk to his beat-up Isuzu Trooper in the parking lot
for a few hours of sleep before school started.
was the closest thing he had to a home. It barely ran and was
covered in rust. He put newspapers against its windows in the winter
for insulation. It helped. He seldom had heat.
cold,” he said. “I didn’t really have much money for gas.”
Ironically, his money liked to find its way to the place he went
when his car broke: homeless shelters. Asheville, a melting-pot
city, has lots of them. Mickey made friends there. They asked for
money to buy food. He gave it to them.
“He had a heart of
gold,” remembered long-time friend Christopher “Buster” Brown. “He
would take the shirt off his back and give it to you. He had
leadership. He just needed someone to believe in him.”
Buster was the buddy
Mickey could count on. A fellow class-clown type who saw a kindred
spirit when Mickey showed up in the ninth grade. “You could tell we
weren’t rich,” Buster said, “but we still took pride in what we
They became close friends. They had those late-night talks that
put trust to the test. Buster believed in Mickey when it seemed
nobody did. Negativity was plentiful everywhere else he turned.
During job interviews. Even from teachers, who took no interest in
him because he was not college-bound.
“I was told many times
in my life that I would be a failure,” Mickey said. “That I would
amount to nothing.”
For his part, Mickey admits he didn’t do
much to give his teachers faith. Education was “irrelevant” during
that time of his life. He would finish his senior year 225th out of
But it was there, on a Tuesday morning inside
an art room at Clyde A. Erwin High School, when everything changed.
Mickey was late that day so that he and a friend could smoke. He
wasn’t even sure why the television in the room was on. It normally
wasn’t. Then he saw the buildings, and the smoke, and the chaos.
This couldn’t be real, he thought. Was what he smoked that
morning laced? Then the fog lifted. Reality began to set in. For
Mickey, it was reality times 3,051, the estimated number of children
who lost parents during the 9/11 attacks.
“That just didn’t
sit well with me,” he said.
School shut down. He reported for
work. His job that day was to lay carpet in an apartment complex.
Meanwhile, layer upon layer of anger and sadness crept into his
being. He kept thinking about the children--especially the ones who
lost both parents or their only parent.
“If nobody in the
family stepped up, they were going into the foster system,” he said.
“They were going to have to live my life.”
He framed carpet
until 11 that night. His mind raced and wrestled the whole time.
Like an older foster sibling, the events of the day were pinning him
against a wall inside his head. Torturing him.
Adding to the
pain was a deep depression that had sunk inside him long before that
horrific day. His young life already felt like a broken record of
repeating doom. Doing construction the rest of his life seemed
inescapable. College was a pipe dream. He could never afford it, and
his “GPA sucked.” He had nothing and nobody.
“It was a
delirium that is very hard to describe,” he said. “It overtook me
due to my grief from being alone in the world.”
his own 911. His own call for help.
His last name
was Smith. He probably was a staff sergeant or a sergeant first
class, but Mickey knew nothing about rank at the time. He had never
even thought about joining the military until he was laying carpet
in a fit of fury the prior afternoon.
Sgt. Smith, an
infantryman assigned to recruiting duty, may have possessed the most
generic rank, name, and military trade combination in the Army.
Smith might as well been named Sgt. John Doe, or GI Joe. Fitting,
because Smith was about to become a guardian angel in camouflage
disguise. He was about to change a homeless teenager’s life.
“He told me about his experience in the infantry,” Mickey
remembered, “like how it’s a band of brothers and everybody is
The words fell on Mickey’s ears like a blissful
melody. They could have descended from above. Perhaps that’s why he
remembers little else about the conversation. What happened after it
was finished, however, is crystal clear.
“I walked out of
that recruiting station feeling like he was my friend,” Mickey said,
“like he was looking out for my best interest.”
remembers talking to Mickey soon after. Buster could sense the fear
of the unknown.
“You and me both know you can do it,” Buster
urged him. “Make a life for yourself.”
Mickey soon learned
Buster was right. Army basic training, the perdition that always
follows the friendly backdrop of recruiting stations, was a welcome
upgrade to Mickey’s Isuzu Trooper routine of minimal rest and going
days without food.
“My childhood made boot camp easy,” he
said. “I got way more sleep (there), and I ate more.”
first Army occupation was cavalry scout. He performed reconnaissance
missions before reclassifying into Smith’s infantry band of brothers
(Mickey’s trademark smile now goes wide with pride looking at the
famed 101st Airborne patch on his right arm).
nearly 20 years since Mickey raised that arm, swore his allegiance
and began his Army adventure. Along the way, he’s had stints as a
Bradley fighting vehicle driver, gunner and commander. He’s been a
section leader, platoon sergeant, first sergeant, operations NCO,
drill sergeant, college instructor, and education director.
“I found the enlisted world to be very amazing,” he said. “I really
enjoyed the time I had with my Soldiers, and leading Soldiers, and
just being a Soldier.”
Mickey was teaching Army ROTC classes in
Pennsylvania when Capt. Joe Barrow showed up as a new instructor in
early 2015. Barrow couldn’t find an available rental in the small
college town of Slippery Rock. Still eager to help the homeless,
Mickey told him about a place right next door to his.
Barrow also took up the office next to Mickey’s
at the college, and the two literally became neighbors day and
night. They talked often. Mickey, Barrow quickly discovered, was a
“The cadets absolutely loved him,” Barrow
said. “He could connect with people, and they would listen to him.”
Barrow noticed much of the same when they walked across campus.
It wasn’t just the cadets. Everyone knew Mickey. Everyone wanted to
“You could tell they cared about the guy,” Barrow,
who has since retired, recalled. “It wasn’t a business exchange.
He’s a very genuine person.”
Mickey was a master sergeant,
one rank from the highest possible for an enlisted Soldier, when he
began talking to Barrow about becoming a commissioned officer. He
already had a bachelor’s degree, something he methodically pieced
together “one class at a time” during his deployments and drill
sergeant days. Now he was ready for a graduate degree, which the
Army’s Green to Gold program would pay for at the college of his
choice and ensure he commissioned as a second lieutenant when he was
To Barrow, it was a no-brainer. ”Building officers”
for the Army was Mickey’s job in Slippery Rock, and “he was an
expert in everything he was teaching them.” More importantly, Barrow
knew Mickey would be an officer who always put his Soldiers before
“He would do anything for you. He would give you the
shirt off his back,” Barrow said, echoing what Buster recognized
long before that shirt was Army issued.
Barrow saw what
Buster saw. That inside Matthew Mickey was a heart of gold. That he
had given it to the Army and his fellow Soldier. And it was time,
Barrow told him, for the Army to give a little of it back.
Where It All Began
no longer wears the golden second lieutenant bars the Army gave him
when he completed a master’s degree at the University of South
Carolina. The bars are silver now, and 1st Lt. Mickey is an
executive officer for the Army’s New York City Recruiting Battalion.
He lives in the city with his
wife, Denise, and 9-year-old daughter, Lily. It was Denise, he said,
who always encouraged him to become an officer, to get his master’s
degree, to always look for “what’s next.” Mickey met Denise when he
was stationed in Kentucky. She’s been the partner in his Army
adventure for the last 15 years.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Matthew Mickey
with his wife, Denise, 9-year-old daughter, Lily, and their
dogs in there home on November 12, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Lara Poirrier, Recruiting Command)
“It makes me feel great when
he says that he feels complete now,” Denise said with a soft
bluegrass twang, “that he feels like he is part of a team.”
Mickey hasn’t made up his mind, but he’s eligible for retirement
soon and likely at the end of his Army journey. In the same place it
began, nearly 20 years ago when two airplanes blew up what he now
calls his backyard.
It’s “what’s next” that he hasn’t quite
figured out. He knows he wants to continue using the education and
skills the Army gave him to help others. Like when Mickey built an
outreach program targeting at-risk students and increased college
enrollment out of a high school by 23 percent.
Or when he
built a nonprofit to help retiring NCOs get senior management jobs
He’s got a few more ideas in the works. He
wants to create a mini Ironman competition for those with special
needs. He’s using skills acquired when he was a finance officer to
design a stock market training program to help working-class people
turn small sums into income, regardless of volatility. There’s
already enough of that in their lives.
“I walk down the
street and I see people who have so much value and so much purpose
but have been beaten down by life,” he said. “They don’t even know
that…they have the potential to accomplish anything they put their
The Army can help them the same way the Army
helped him, he tells some of those he meets on the New York streets.
He sees the invisible walls inside their minds. Tear em’ down, just
like I did, he says.
Because in a city that never sleeps,
where the lights never go out, Matthew Mickey is no longer in a dark
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