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Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

A Veteran’s Outlook

Matt Stockton

Shares his thoughts and experiences on his service in the US Army

Often thanked and honored, veterans typically humbly shy away from discussing the issues service men and women face.

Matt Stockton, who served active duty in the Army for six years, opened up about the issues he feels vets face while serving and when returning home.

“I was gone all over the world and only got to come home rarely,” he said. “I had to cook holiday meals for troops on base. I missed my brothers kids being born and I was ready to get out and spend time with family. I had traveled and did what I needed to do. It is hard having a family while you are in, it takes a lot of work.”

Missing time with family takes a toll on a person, Stockton said, noting adjusting to different environments can be a difficult hurdle.

“We leave for a whole year and we are in a different environment. We feel things should stop and hold on for us until we come back. And the family also feels that way, but life goes on. “

Stockton said communication has greatly improved, now the ability to communicate with loved ones has greatly improved over the years, but still remains challenging.

“When I was in  Afghanistan, we could only talk through email and you had to wait an hour once or twice a week. At a good base, you could use a phone,” he said. “Three years later when I was in Iraq, communication was a lot better. I couldn’t imagine writing letters and waiting months to go back and forth. I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

As time marches on for families while a loved one is serving, difficult moments often occur.

“Guys I served with – I fought side by side with them – one committed suicide, one killed his wife and his kids and is now serving time. Most of it is triggered by a issue with a spouse or family member back home. You don’t see the signs because the military taught them to be strong and not show emotions.” 

The emotional struggles are as difficult while serving as when returning home, Stockton said.  

“It is hard when you get back and adjust to civilian life. Over there you have a set schedule and you don’t have a wife or kids there and when you get back home, it is hard to adjust because now you don’t have a set schedule, the routine is gone, and now you have others you are taking care of. It is especially hard with kids, because they don’t know who you are when you get back. People feel like strangers.”

Stockton said utilizing services and resources available to veterans is vital.

“They have counseling and programs when you come back, but it is still difficult to get adjusted,” he said. “It’s a completely different lifestyle. Some people handle it well, others not so much. I think thats why the suicide rate is what it is. How do you help a person who is struggling to face and accept that life moved on without them, new jobs, new homes, family that has passed or grown and especially those who had an unfaithful spouse. It can be overwhelming. All that while trying to process the things you have been through while serving.”

“There was one suicide on base. He jumped from the third story after he found out bad news from home. Stuff like that -it is hard to adjust.”

Despite the hardships he and his comrades encountered, Stockton said his service was an incredible opportunity.

Stockton joined the Army in 2003 at 20 years-old to pursue a better life and to further his education.

“I didn’t really do anything in high school as far as scholarships and planning for a future. I talked to a recruiter who said it would pay for my college,” he said, noting he went on to receive an associates degree while serving, as well as pursue an education in culinary arts.

Having received his elementary and high school education in Polk County, Stockton said he feels serving in the military is a great option for those nearing adulthood.

“It is a way to continue your education and learning a job skill. And that’s significant for people here. As a kid here, back then, we didn’t care for doing the school work or going after scholarships. If you didn’t have the type of family that pushes that sort of thing or a mentor encouraging you, this is a really good option.”

Stockton recalled working at a local restaurant while being a high school student. 

 “I learned I loved to cook and I wanted to own my own restaurant, so  I focused on that while I was in,” he said, noting his MOS or career field was as a food service specialist, or cook, for the Army.

“A lot of people get their MOS and think that it is safe, that it is a position that won’t see combat. But that is not true,” he said. “I ended up going airborne and jumping out of airplanes, and saw combat.”

During his time in service, Stockton went to Italy, Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany and other locations that he said broadened his horizons, provided great experiences, including experiencing first-hand the food of other cultures.

“That worked out great because the food is amazing,” he said. “I did have fun over there. It was a great opportunity for someone with culinary interest.”

When asked if he would do it all over again, Stockton said yes, but he would change his expectations.

“There were times, like when I was getting shot at, that I had to question why I enlisted,” he said. 

“Being young, I didn’t pay attention to the news and never thought of that when I signed up. I was young and naive. It is something I didn’t pay attention to it, until you are over there getting shot at.”

Stockton said that he thought being a cook there was no chance he would be put in harms way. 

“When you get sent overseas, so many jobs are done by contractors, so you get stuck getting security detail or handling detainees or being on convoys for a commander,” he explained. “So you get shot at a lot while on convoys. You are actually likely to see it more, depending on what job you get stuck doing.”

One of Stockton’s best and worst moments while serving involve his time with an airborne unit.

“I like jumping out of airplanes because of the views as you are falling,” he said. “My worst memory is  also jumping out of airplane. The last time I  jumped, I didn’t get out of the plane all the way. My shoot got stuck. I rolled down the side of the plane a bit and the shoot collapsed. I was spinning trying to untangle my shoot. I was not ready to hit the ground, and I was still spinning. When I hit the ground, it jammed my knee and my back. So I hit the ground pretty hard. I still hit the ground in my sleep sometimes and jerk the whole bed.”

Stockton said the dreams of hitting the ground have eased over the years.

“I did go to therapy for a while and worked through some PTSD and it helped,” he said, noting getting the help needed was rough going at first.

“The first couple of years after I got back, I didn’t know about disability or VA clinic. They don’t tell you all of that when you leave the base and come back home.”

A special relationship with another veteran was critical to Stockton’s ability to find resources.

“An older veteran who is now passed, acted as a mentor,” he explained. “He told me what I needed to do to get things started in that right direction.”

Stockton said a common issue veterans face is not knowing who to talk to about resources and assistance.

“But I find that around here, people are very supportive of vets. I have license plates and often get thanked while out in public.”

Stockton said overall, the experience of serving was positive and he made many memories.

“When I got back from Italy, I was sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for a year and there I started culinary art school. I was supposed to go to a competition in North Carolina, but got sent to 10th Special Forces in Fort Carson in Colorado, he said. “So when the special forces unit was sent to Iraq, we were at a forward observing base, or FOB, and we were in one of Saddam Hussein’s mansions that we took over. There were about 30 people on base and national guard was doing security, and we mostly did night missions raiding. I was the only cook and we all took good care of each other.”

A common problem Stockton said veterans face is not knowing where to turn for assistance. 

Stockton said veterans who need assistance should visit the Polk County Veterans Service Office, 606 Pine Ave. (Old Hospital Building) in Mena  or call (479) 394-8147. 

“They have all the information you need to get started on disability and other paperwork they can get you set up with veterans groups.”

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