This is the second installment of three in a series called “Iraq and Back” profiling three UMD students and their personal involvement in the U.S. Army and the War in Iraq.
You don’t have to meet him more than once before you’ll find yourself calling him “Petey” and not thinking twice about it. Sgt. Matt Peterson of the United States Army is, without a doubt, one of the most personable humans I have ever met. I’m learning that this is a trait of a well-versed solider. Being resilient, calm and well-spoken is something the Army does for people, whether they are aware of it or not.
At 27 years old, this Hayward, Wis., native has met more people than most of us will in our entire lifetimes. That’s one of the things that makes Peterson so unique. He’s been in unfathomable situations in the craziest places, yet all of his stories are about the people he has encountered.
Peterson admits that at age 16 he was “not the best kid” and was enrolled in military school, but never thought he’d be joining the U.S. Army because he actually wanted to. Just one day before his scheduled session at basic training, a 17-year-old Peterson jumped ship.
“My family was so against it, my dad especially,” Peterson recalls. He moved to Minneapolis where he attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts , but eventually left because it became too expensive.
That move put him back in Hayward, having dropped out of college and feeling what he describes as “being on a treadmill in terms of life.”
“I was 21 and sitting at my mom’s bar, watching the news about the initial push into Iraq and just talking with her. It felt like a regular day,” Peterson says, but at the time he was unaware that this one newscast would change his entire life for the better.
Peterson went back to the Twin Cities to enlist in 2004. He spoke with a recruiter, whose honest words did not waver his desire to join.
“That recruiter sat across from his desk, stared me in the face and said ‘Son, it’s not a matter of if we are going to go to Iraq, it’s a matter of when.’ And I knew that.” Peterson flashes an “I know how crazy that sounds now” smile as he recalls this memory.
Peterson completed basic training in March of 2005, where he trained as a private. He was deployed in October of that year. Throughout training, each solider learns to be prepared for every possible situation.
Peterson describes the training process as a game of pushing.
“The military does a really good job of making you feel comfortable and then pushing you out of that comfort zone. Then once you start to feel comfortable there, they push you out of that comfort zone.”
Peterson is thankful for this, as he says, “They don’t stop pushing you, and you get to a certain point where you can do anything, you can take it all on. That’s good for someone to experience.”
Having never flown over the Atlantic, the initial deployment was slightly nerve-racking for Peterson, but there was no turning back now. Hours later they arrived in Kuwait, where they would spend three weeks running mock missions in the desert.
“Stepping off that plane was like baking cookies in the biggest oven ever, opening it and sticking your face in to see if they’re done yet,” Peterson says, using his hands to simulate opening the plane’s door and being blasted with heat.
Peterson refers to the mock missions as “one final dress rehearsal before the big show.” Noting that they’d been running these drills day in and day out for the past six months, Peterson says everyone was always on cue during these mock missions, which was helpful in times of stress.
Finally the moment of truth came and the dress rehearsal was over. It was time for opening night. Upon stepping off the biggest cargo plane he’d ever seen in Tallil, Iraq, Peterson remembers having to, as he says, “embrace the suck.”
“You accept the fact that you’re in a crappy situation, you deal with it, and you do what you have to do and then you leave. At the same time you make the most of it, you try to make your guys laugh, and do what you can do get through this,” Peterson says, almost with a fondness in his voice.
The excitement in Peterson’s voice builds as he looks back on the relationships he made.
“The people we met out there, that was insane. Georgians, Ugandans, Italians, British, Australians, even Japanese and Croatians. So many different groups of soldiers that I didn’t even know were over there.”
Peterson describes their living containers, or “hooches,” in Iraq as “having 15 of your best friends on one city block. We became such a tight-knit group.”
Peterson’s unit consisted of a staff sergeant, a medic, a gunner, and himself as the driver. Peterson admits the medic in his unit was a less-than-excellent driver, which resulted in Peterson driving on most of the missions.
His unit was on five-day rotations driving convoys through different parts of Iraq. The number of missions and miles they logged have been lost in Peterson’s head, but the things he saw will never leave him.
All production stops during a convoy if a roadside bomb is spotted or hit, sometimes resulting in sitting for hours. Peterson says the longest they ever sat was 14 hours, saying that once his PSP or iPod died, time really started to fly by.
“You become so close with those guys, you learn so much about their families, their ailments, and their histories,” he says of the bonds he made.
He laughs thinking back to the rituals they all had before combat. His was a “pre-combat chew” and listening to “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones before he left the gate.
Peterson’s vehicle was a scout vehicle, meaning it was in the front of the convoy. It was never hit. He notes that the gunners would take it especially hard if a vehicle behind them was hit, which meant the gunner didn’t do his job of spotting the roadside bomb.
“Sometimes there is just nothing you can do or could have done. It’s 4:30 in the morning and you’re dog tired, drinking Red Bull and doing everything you can to stay awake,” Peterson says of running these missions. “It’s just so mentally exhausting, it’s everyone’s job to look for those IEDs [roadside bombs].”
Peterson describes the most gruesome thing he witnessed, about eight months in, when he watched a vehicle three trucks ahead of him explode.
“It just went up in flames. It was an empty tanker, so it was just fumes in there. Everyone was pretty calm. We did what we were supposed to, we radioed in and pulled up to the side of the truck.” Peterson takes a moment, and continues. “It looked like hamburger meat inside that truck, and we did everything we could to put out that fire, but it was just too late.”
Peterson shakes his head as he thinks about this moment and the roadside bombs, saying, “All those people know over there is war, it’s a war torn country and that is all they know.” That moment, he admits, was when he knew he was fighting for a different cause than the U.S. thinks. “We were all in it for each other.”
When Peterson returned to the States, he found that his fianceé of almost two years was eight months pregnant. Peterson had been gone 16 months.
This event, coupled with his tour in Iraq, gave Peterson his life motto, “It could always be worse.”
He describes this thought process by saying, “The military trains you to be so resilient. It could always be worse.”
Sgt. Matt Peterson does not like the news anymore, not the way he used to.
He says, “The media shows you what you want to see. America loves drama. It should be called ‘the bad news,’ because everything good we do, no one broadcasts that.”
Peterson talks of an instance in which some of their moms sent over a huge amount of school supplies that they delivered to the Iraqi schools. This is just one example of something positive the news has never mentioned.
“Soliders do get scared and we do care about civilians,” Peterson says. “The media is just so biased.”
Peterson has made the choice to re-enlist and join his company in deploying into Kuwait again in May. He made this choice for his brother, who just recently decided to enlist. Using his rank as sergeant, Peterson was able to get his brother into his own unit.
“I remember signing up five years ago, and I wish I had someone there with me sometimes,” Peterson says. “I want to be there with him.”