The Dismantling of Lance Corporal Matthew T. Kallback
As parents, it was hard for us to watch our teenage son struggle with learning in high school, eventually having to be part of a special education program. But what was harder was hearing his complaints of jocks pushing him into lockers, knocking his books out of his hands, and stealing his lunch money. While small, he was also a tough scrappy kid.
We had thought later the Marines would be different, and so had our son, as we watched the ads with him about honor and duty. They weren’t.
While in high school, our son, Matthew Kallback, had taught himself guitar, becoming so talented at using the instrument he was able to play in a local New Jersey rock band called Muddchild. The others with him in the band were fully-grown men, a few already married or committed to weekend visits related to former families. Matt had dreams of going on the road. I told him with Muddchild band members needing daily jobs, bread, and having to be around for child visitations, dreams would probably be put on hold. They were.
However, we were caught off guard when Matthew came to us one day at the beginning of 2003, and said, “I want to make a difference. I want to be a Marine.”
He knew his grandfather had driven the Marines on to the beaches of Okinawa in 1944 during WWII. He had also attended his grandfather’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery with its impressive 21-gun salute (seven rifles and three shots in unison.) His great grandfather had also served in the Marines circa WWI.
But we believe what really pushed our son into the service was our living about 25 miles away from ground zero of September 11, 2001, a day that will live in infamy and to never be forgotten by those who lived in and around the New York City area.
While I’ve heard some in San Francisco just didn’t get it, those of us who had the signs of death around us for weeks will never forget the day when husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, children, and parents never set foot in their homes again, their bodies turned to ash that drifted slowly in stench-filled air that made its way along the northeast coast of America.
Thousands of children immediately became part of single-parent families or orphaned, as local newspapers churned out pictures of over 2,000 people who had lived in and around the New York area, details hitting the pages about those who had been left behind to go it alone.
When Matthew first started in the Marines with early training, I drove him to the recruiter’s office on weekends. Then we sold our home, and the day before we moved to North Carolina, the Marines picked him up at 4 a.m. The next day he was on Parris Island while we were driving to our new home just north of Asheville, North Carolina.
Three months later I had the joy of a five-minute hug from a young man dressed in a Marine uniform, telling us he had never realized how wonderful home had been. Yet he was so very proud to have made it through three tough grinding months of training where others had washed out.
And we, too, were proud of this small young man now seen in a clean uniform with shined black shoes, a former heavy-metal guitar player who wanted to simply make a difference, leaving behind long hair and a spiked wrist band for more important duties.
He was able to spend two weeks with us after being excused from graduation at Parris Island, serving in the Mountain Marines outside of Asheville, North Carolina. He loved going to the Asheville Mall in his Marine Blues to talk with long-haired young men dressed in Slayer shirts, telling them about the benefits of serving in the Marines.
He then went on to training at Camp Geiger near Camp LeJeune in eastern North Carolina. We visited him twice before he was shipped out to Hawaii, and then on to a tour of Afghanistan where he served for eight months.
We would talk with him on the phone every few weeks. He said little for security reasons but commented that he loved working with the Afghan Freedom Fighters. He also had called a few days after Mother’s Day to talk with his mom, telling her he had lost a few bros in the mountains to Taliban drug lords.
We asked him how things were, and he said he had a few problems, but that he had handled them before and he could handle them again. We had tried to press him, but he said he didn’t want to dishonor the uniform and that he could say little else. He stayed silent until a few weeks ago.
His tour in Afghanistan ended, taking him back to his base in Hawaii. We later discovered to our dismay and through a dedicated Staff Sgt., who had befriended our son in Afghanistan and now was back in the states, that Matthew had been physically struck and made fun of by a few bully Marines who outranked him while he was serving in Afghanistan. We heard they also went into his tent stealing cigarettes and gifts we had mailed to him. We said it was just like high school all over again. He had told us to stop sending cigarettes because he had stopped smoking. That wasn’t true. We later discovered the cigarettes were being raided from his personal belongings.
Yet he still seemed fine when visiting us in North Carolina this last summer while on leave after his tour in Afghanistan, proud to be a Marine. He then drove north to New Jersey to visit some of his friends after spending a few days with us. We were so proud of him.
After he left to go back to duty, things seemed to continue to slip downhill. His commanding officer was all over him. We didn't understand the abuse or why the officer in charge didn't acknowledge any responsibility for Matthew's safety while serving in Afghanistan under his watch.
The commanding officer even called me, saying Matthew had a chance of being removed from the Corp but didn’t provide any details. I was shocked. But all I could do was tell Matthew his commanding officer had called our home, and that I didn’t know why but was only passing it on.
Of course, at the time, I also didn’t know the extent of the physical and mental abuse Matthew had been subject to from Marine bullies in Afghanistan. I was at a disadvantage with this commanding officer holding all the cards at the time.
We were saddened as we listened to our son turn more bitter over time. This wasn’t the reason he had joined. It hadn’t matched the posters and the television ads about the brotherhood, which began to seem more like so much spin than patriotism.
Then in Hawaii, during Matthew’s time off in a studio where he played guitar with civilians, he reported to me he had picked up one the drink glasses, and the contents knocked him out. The Marines tested his blood the next day and found traces of codeine and wouldn’t accept his reason for the one-time event. After what he had gone through in Afghanistan, we understood he just wanted to be able to play his guitar because it was his way of getting centered. It's why we can't blame him for what happened at the studio. He was just trying to make his situation more bearable by enjoying his music, which he has done since high school.. We know he didn't go there to get drunk.
I had been in studios with Matthew in New Jersey and knew some musicians would spike their drinks, leaving them half-filled and around on speakers or wherever. Someone could easily get a drink mixed up with another during rehearsals since most glasses from a studio’s kitchen area were identical.
Then recently Matthew told us that during a battalion meeting of about five hundred of his bros, the new commanding officer told the group that anyone with a potential drug charge was to be treated by them as an “Insurgent.” He also told us the commanding officer had previously let it out to others that he was going to be served with a Court Martial, so everyone knew he was one of those to be treated as a terrorist.
My son called us at home after the event, angry and furious his commander had called him the same as the Taliban, ones who had killed his bros in Afghanistan.
At the time we had already started seeking the assistance of Senator Dole’s office for a Congressional Investigation into our son’s treatment in Afghanistan. I had read the report of a witness to his physical and mental abuse while Matthew was serving in Afghanistan. We were horrified, angry, and disgusted by what we read.
After being in Hawaii for a while, Matthew had been separated from his bros. They had gone on for training into the mountains of California in anticipation of their tour in Iraq, while our son, on the other hand, had been left behind to do guard duty and mow the lawn on the base.
And that is where we are left today.
Matthew, realizing he needed to prepare to live on the outside, would try on his days off to arrange for a civilian job on the island while at the same time look for anywhere he could arrange for a room to put his head down after being recycled out of the Corps. We were told his Marine commanding officers had advised him that he would probably be removed from the Marines after serving specified days in his room.
A friend, who had also served in the military, told us that there would be no mentioning of our son’s service overseas or any assistance for him from a GI Bill, which was one of the reasons he had joined.
We invited our son to come home when they removed him after more than two years of service, but he said he loved his independence too much. With little money, he said he didn’t want to be homeless on the island, but seemed to believe that was the price he would have to pay.
We believed, on the other hand, he was embarrassed and even though little of this was his fault, he feared friends and family would be ashamed of him. He didn't even want to go back to New Jersey where he might be made fun of for joining in the first place. He was one of the few in his group of friends and musicians to serve his country in the military.
We have no argument with the service, understanding their rules while not understanding the abuse our son suffered while we allowed him to be entrusted under their care.
But it was Matthew, who had wanted to join, and on top of it all had also survived Parris Island, while too many of today’s spoiled college kids make fun of young men like him.
Matthew’s pride of wearing the Marine Blues was beyond words for us. The package was a gift we had purchased for him when he was graduated from Parris Island.
In the end, we know he didn’t let the Marines down, but that the Marines let him down. We will always be proud of his service and his love of working with the Afghan Freedom Fighters, knowing from the testimony of a few brave men that our son had been abused, but this time, instead, by Marine jocks who referred to him while in Afghanistan as their “Shit Bag.”
It's not what Matthew's great grandfather would have dreamed as he made his way to America's Ellis Island from Sweden in the 1920's, nor his grandfather who served on Okinawa in WWII. That's what I told Matthew's camp commander in Hawaii when on the phone, discovering what had happened to my son. When Matthew was in chains in solitary, the commander visited him and said, Your father talks too much.
Matt's new recording on TuneCore, Days, Nights, and Years