Marine vet copes with PTSD, meets Trump through Wounded Warrior Project
By Jenna-Ley Harrison
Matthew Shelton can’t forget freshman year at his Georgia high school watching the news coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While he had always planned to serve his country through the military, the historic moment only motivated him more.
“They turned on all the TVs in the high school...and it kinda brings that desire and need to be a part of serving the country,” Shelton said. “I always wanted to serve my country.”
The now-31-year-old also admired relatives who had fought as far back as the Civil War, along with a great-great-grandfather in World War I and an uncle who gave his life in Vietnam.
“I felt a personal connection to him even though I never met him,” Shelton said.
While he talked to an Army recruiter at one point, it was the Marine Corps he had his heart set on since age 16.
Shelton officially signed up in 2006, right out of high school, and was shipped to Japan for work as a motor transport mechanic. Ironically, even in the midst of an ongoing war in the Middle East and a desire to serve on the front lines, Shelton never saw conflict during his four years of active duty.
“I wanted to deploy from Day 1 but it was just kind of a matter of timing,” he said.
It wasn’t until 2011, when Shelton had transitioned to the Reserves, that he was deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In many ways he was ready for action; in other ways the reality of his surroundings were a complete shock.
“I think any time you stepped outside of the comfort of the operating base that we were on...you automatically have that fear of, you know, ‘What if something happens to the guy next to me? What if something happens to me?’ You’re automatically on a heightened sense,” Shelton said.
During that seven-month period overseas, he was part of a security detail, carrying fuel and supplies to different operating bases around the region. He often engaged with locals who also viewed the Taliban as the enemy. One local in particular marked Shelton’s mind—a man with a chest scar from an attack by the terrorist regime.
At least two other moments from his deployment still stand out to Shelton. First, he described the time an Afghan man pointed out a hidden IED to the Marines’ unit after their radar detector had somehow overlooked it in the rainy weather.
“We almost ran over an IED, and a local nationalist happened to jump out of his truck and pointed it out to us,” Shelton said.
Secondly, he explained how unnerving it was to watch a medevac fly out a victim who had lost a leg in a nearby explosion. To this day, Shelton counts his blessings, knowing his deployment could have gone much differently.
“We just happened to be very lucky, and no one got injured more than one IED blast,” he said. “We only had one gunner (who) had sniper shots shot at him, but he was able to duck.”
Upon returning to the States it wasn’t long before Shelton left the Reserves, instead joining the Georgia Army National Guard until 2016. A difficult decision at the time, Shelton said he now has no regrets about leaving military life.
“At one time I wanted to stay in for 20 years...but I kind of came to terms with it,” he said. “I’ve got time with my family now.”
He praised the military and the life lessons it taught him.
“I think it’s one of the best decisions just about anybody can make, especially now,” Shelton said. “I believe if somebody’s able to, I think it’s a great choice.”
But the transition back to civilian life hasn’t been an easy one for Shelton, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said nightmares, irritability and “a little bit of everything” are daily struggles for him now.
“It’s the environment that we were in. ...It can be hard to let go of those experiences,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do with—I don’t even really know how to explain it.”
Two years ago he and his wife Kayla—whom he credits as his biggest supporter and who grew up in the area—moved to the Lowcountry.
“Without her I wouldn’t be able to do the stuff I’m doing...accomplish my goals,” Shelton said. “She definitely gives a lot of sacrifice.”
Kayla Shelton works for the Charleston County 911 Consolidated Dispatch Center. The pair have three small children at home; Shelton also has a fourth child who doesn’t live with the couple.
Shelton said it was also because of Kayla’s nudging that last month he decided to go to Washington, D.C. with other wounded vets to meet President Trump. He was the only one from South Carolina to attend.
Sponsored by Wounded Warrior Project, the trip was refreshing and also eye-opening, Shelton said, as he was able to meet others with similar past experiences still hampering them in the present. While some were blind and others missing limbs, they retained their sense of humor.
“They’re injured a lot worse...and they handle it real well,” Shelton said. “A lot of them...made good jokes about it. Instead of letting it bring them down, they let it bring them up.”
A stay-at-home dad for now, Shelton is currently enrolled in Charleston Southern University, planning to graduate in about a year with a bachelor’s degree in business management and a minor in criminal justice. However, he remains undecided about what career path—businessman or policeman—he should take.
“I just want to help people,” Shelton said.