Monday, June 4, 2012

The Invisible Scars of War

matt proulxMemorial Day is a week past yet I still find myself thinking of those who sacrificed their lives to protect our freedom.

In particular, I think of Sgt. Matthew A. Proulx of the New York State Army National Guard.

Matt attended high school with me in the 1980s. We weren't best friends but, even though he was a year older, we ran with some of the same crowd.

Matt loved photography. In fact, I have a hard time picturing Matt without a bulky SLR dangling from around his neck. He shot photos for the yearbook, had notable roles in a few school plays and once in a while would hang out in the parking lot in front of the Friendly's that used to be on the main drag. That's just what we did in our teen years back then.

Most of all, I remember Matt, like me, loved The Who. At prom his senior year, someone -- maybe Matt himself -- convinced the DJ to play its anthem "Baba O'Riley." He and some friends rallied together, fists in the air trying to channel Pete Townshend as they sang and shouted the song's bridge:

Don't cry
Don't raise your eye
It's only teenage wasteland!

I don't recall seeing Matt after he graduated, but it didn't surprise me to learn years later that he moved to New York City and became a professional photographer. He even wrote a well-received handbook on how to be a photographer's assistant.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

His wife escaped by virtue of her being late that morning for her job at the World Trade Center. In response, within weeks Matt joined the Guard.

He found himself a few years later escorting truck convoys as our country waged war in Iraq. His reward: a couple of wounds during an ambush that "earned" him a Purple Heart.

He returned stateside, assigned to serve in a color guard unit that presided at military funerals. However, the worst wound he received overseas -- the one inside -- never healed.

On April 4, 2007, sitting in his Honda Civic at his home in Buffalo, N.Y., Matt Proulx, age 40, took his life -- a victim of the mental scars of war.

His last valiant act came seconds before. Matt dialed 911, explained what he was about to do, and asked the police to hurry.

"I don't want anyone else to get this gun," he told the operator, according to a published report of that night. The gun was his military assault rifle.

The suicide rate of active soldiers, for the first time in measurement, now significantly exceeds that of the general population. A recent report by U.S. Army researchers says suicides among our soldiers rose 80 percent from 2004 to 2008. About two-fifths of these have been linked to combat time in Iraq that caused depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress or other "disorders," such as substance abuse. These are the quietest byproducts of the war experience.

From what I know, Matt spent his final years like many veterans, suffering silently and stoically from invisible injuries received in combat. That's apparently the military culture -- suck it up or be labeled a weakling, unfit to serve or live.

I've read a dozen articles recently about the armed forces trying to change that through more proactive screening, counseling and support of combat veterans. Until humanity can figure out how to avoid the need for war, period, that's the best we can hope for so stories like Matt's avoid tragic endings and the three lines right before that famous middle eight Matt and his friends bellowed out on prom night, hold true:

I don't need to fight
To prove I'm right
I don't need to be forgiven.

Photo source

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A few of Matt’s friends put together a video tribute to him, but copyright laws prevent me from embedding it. However, you can view “A Tribute to Matt Proulx” on YouTube.


  1. One of my best friends (also a Matt) just got done serving in Afghanistan. He's come out of it a lot better than some people, but I know he still struggles with a lot, and that he lost a lot of friends, some in the way that your friend Matt lost his life. Sometimes it seems like guys who might otherwise be okay end up hit hard by losing a friend, and then maybe we lose those guys who were too broken up about losing their friends, and it's sort of a vicious cycle.

    It's hard to think about how to fix it all. My friend wrote an article about his experiences for the New York Times, here:

    1. Wow. That's a powerful story. I hope he's doing better.

  2. This just breaks my heart into a million pieces.

  3. I have a good friend right now who is fighting with the Senate in DC to get her son returned home. He did a tour in Afghanistan, and is now serving one year in Korea.

    The mental scars from the events in Afghanistan have caused him to attempt his life TWICE.

    And yet the military sees no reason to send him home.

    As much as they say they are changing, they are not. So, So very sad. I am sorry about your friend... no one should have to live or die that way.

    1. Ugh. That is a sad story. I wish your friend much luck.

  4. We have to watch "suicide awareness" videos and attend training on signs to look out for in our brothers in arms at least annually in the Guard or Reserves, but the suicides still happen every year. My Squadron Commander and First Sergeant both took their lives within a year of retiring from our unit and returning to a life without their fellow Airmen.

    I'm glad you shared this.

    1. Wow. That's terrible.

      I think of you and Dubya most. Stay strong, friend.

  5. "suck it up or be labeled a weakling, unfit to serve or live." -- that's the sad thing about many testosterone-fuelled jobs: military, law enforcement, competitive sports... and the bad news hardly comes to focus.
    So sorry for Matt and all who mourn him. Just know that he's a hero for serving with dedication and courage; and being, as I believe he surely was, a good man and a good friend.

  6. I am just finding your blog as I decided tonight to look for a old friend of mine... whom I met between 1990-91 when I was working for a photography trade association in NYC... his name was Matt Proulx. I had looked online on and off again for Matt, and now having read this, I think I finally found him. I am right now heart broken...

  7. Just stumbled across this post. I was a good friend of Matt's (though I didn't go to Catholic High), and helped put together the YouTube tribute you reference. I last spoke to him about two weeks before his fateful decision, and during the conversation we talked about getting together in Buffalo over the summer. Thank you for writing your post. It's nice to know others cared for him and miss him as I do.

  8. I stumbled across this post today, thank you for the words you wrote. Matt was a great friend of mine (though I didn't go to Catholic High), and I'm the one who put the YouTube video together. I last talked to Matt about two weeks prior to that fateful day, and we had made plans to meet up in Buffalo later that summer. He sounded very happy during that phone call, very optimistic about the future. I cannot imagine the pain he must have felt. Thanks again for helping honor his legacy. tranti -at- comcast -dot- net.

  9. I am a former NYNG soldier who joined in 2002. Matt was a sharp soldier with an awesome personality. I first met him in late 2002 before Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off. I trained with many of the soldiers from the 1-101 Cavalry
    who went to Baghdad with him. They saw SGT Proulx shine in combat. Years after I returned home from the war, I sought help. With much psychological rehabilitation, I have overcome the sadness from the war.
    I am on a mission to engage my fellow veterans about the realities of suicide as a way of honoring my fallen brothers and sisters. I will be
    carrying my memory of this man in my arsenal of inspiration. RIP SGT Proulx, I will see you on the other side. -- "To the Utmost!"

  10. This was my Best friend and Brother in law.His widow will be so honored of your beautiful selioquy


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