‘We lost so much, but we gained so much more’: Iraq War veteran reflects on July Fourth, cost of freedom

Photo via Good Free Photos, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Independence Day isn’t only about the crafting of the United States’ Constitution, fighting for liberation or gaining the right to vote. For many who have served in uniform since 1775, it means to bleed for an oath taken to serve the nation.

One of the oldest military branches is the United States Marine Corps.

For anyone who has served as a Marine, getting off the bus at one of the two recruiting depots is a shock to the system. You stand in yellow footprints painted in the concrete, and hell is paid if you move 1 inch off of the silhouette.

You roll out of your “rack” before the sun rises and are back to bed before it sets, and in the meantime, you drill, drill, drill.

Although it may seem harsh, St. George resident and U.S. Marine Sgt. Thomas Matthew said boot camp was “everything I expected, everything I needed (and) everything this country was built from … grit, determination and battling against the odds.”

Thomas (right), Vic and “Bubba” Matthew at the Grand Canyon, date not specified | Photo courtesy Thomas Matthew, St. George News

This year, July 4 has a special meaning for Matthew, as it will mark 10 years since coming home from a tour of duty in Karma Provence Iraq, a 45-minute drive from the then-embattled city of Falluja. Matthew would go on to serve an additional tour in Iraq.

“When I first got back from Iraq it didn’t really hit me,” he said, adding that he just knew he had to be there at the time. He said he thought the violence and death he witnessed all around him in Iraq was “supposed to be normal.”

“It wasn’t until much later that I knew it was something really bad to go through, but it was about freedom for Iraq and getting home.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2004, there were 144,300 Americans deployed to Iraq. By 2007 that number reached its peak of 170,300. During Matthew’s first tour more than 148,000 served in combat.

“It was a positive-negative experience,” he said. “Conditions really depended on where you were in the country. Where we were, it was kind of the Wild, Wild West. When I was there, we weren’t necessarily killing a lot of people or getting shot at, but it did happen.”

As an ammunition specialist technician, Matthew’s day-to-day was never the same. Helping the Iraqi Army and police learn how defend themselves was a rewarding part of the job, but on the flip side, he added, trying to help people who were “hateful” was not as rewarding.

“Before you deploy, you are doing nothing but training how to kill people, take over countries and win wars, but when you are there, you actually have to learn how to deal with so many different kinds of people and so many different kinds of thoughts, but (there are) so many things we shared.”

During the Revolutionary War, when Americans fought for their freedom from the British Empire, nearly 400,000 men took up arms; however, at any given time military forces on land numbered more than 20,000. Perhaps the high water mark was 1781 when America fielded almost 30,000 freedom fighters. At sea, the numbers were even more stark.

In October 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the U.S. Navy and established the Marine Corps in November. In 1776 the U.S. fleet numbered 27 ships that went against Britain’s 270. By the end of the war, Britain’s fleet numbered nearly 500 and American dwindled to 20.

When thinking about the American Revolution, Matthew knows soldiers on both sides had families – children, moms and dads.

“When you take the politics out of it, we all seem to have so much in common,” he said. “I wonder if that is how it was on July 4, 1776. We lost so much, but we gained so much more.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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