But He Didn’t Let Anybody Down.
Each year on Veterans Day we are regaled with tales of heroes — typically, those awarded our nation’s highest decorations — and indeed we should and must honor their sacrifices and celebrate their acts of gallantry. But between those draped with honor in public ceremonies and the virtually anonymous souls entombed under government-issued grave markers, there exist legions of those who silently serve unheralded and unknown. This Veteran’s Day I’ll lift a cold one to Matt Garst, once unknown, now little known, still shouldering his rifle daily and doing his best not to let anybody down.
I first wrote about Matt in the March 2011 issue of GUNS Magazine in my Odd Angry Shot column, a piece called “The Two Americas.”* I had found a brief blurb about him in Leatherneck Magazine, and contrasted him with two of our society’s trendy, metro-fashionable types, apparently devoid of any real talent or accomplishment except being famous; famous because they’re celebrities and celebrities because they’re famous. It was easy to get info about those two. Web searches returned over 10 million hits, and each had their own Wikipedia pages. I had never heard of them before — and then wished I never had.
Does That Qualify For Flight Pay?
June 23, 2010, Helmand Province, Afghanistan: 23-year-old Corporal Matt Garst led his squad on patrol, scouting an abandoned compound. Two of his Marines had already walked a narrow trail beside a high wall, but as it turned out, they weren’t heavy enough to set off a large IED planted there. Matt’s a big muscular guy. At 6′, 2″ and weighing over 260 pounds including rifle, ammo and gear, he outweighed his men by 30 to 40 pounds. That was enough. The blast launched him and a yard of earth into low orbit.
Matt’s troops were on the other side of that 10′ wall when the deafening roar thundered. They looked up in horror and saw their corporal’s flailing legs kicking out of the dirt column rocketing skyward. He was blown over ten feet vertical and 15′ downrange. They ran around the wall fearing the worst. Matt was standing in the smoke still clutching his rifle, cursing as he batted off dirt — and highly ticked off.
“What the #### are you lookin’ at?” he barked. “Get back on cordon!” He called in the incident on the radio, refused air evacuation, and led his squad four rocky miles back to their base.
“I wasn’t going to let anybody else take my squad back after they’d been there for me,” he told a Marine journalist. “That’s my job.” He grumbled as Corpsmen checked him out, reluctantly took an ordered day of rest, then picked up his rifle and got back into the fight.
There were lots of Ironman jokes, and “Did you qualify for flight pay?” also, “Gimme your armor — you don’t need it.” He shrugged ’em off, and except for his growing respect and reputation among his fellow grunts, drifted back into American obscurity. His final words on the incident were, “I’m just happy it wasn’t any of my guys.”
EOD later determined the 3-liter explosive was huge, but had been buried too deep and the earth compacted too hard. Lucky for Matt.
“I hadn’t let anybody down.”
Another year, another chapter. Matt later rotated stateside, was promoted to sergeant, spun up more Marines, and returned to Afghanistan. Late the night of Dec. 2, 2011, he led his squad and several ANA (Afghan National Army) troops on a gravel road beside a deep, swiftly flowing canal near Kuchiney Darvishan. It was believed Taliban had mined the road, and an Afghan soldier named Zaheed swept it with a metal detector. Suddenly a speeding truck rounded a bend, and Zaheed tried to wave it down, fearing it would hit a mine. The truck struck him, went out of control, and both splashed into the canal.
Sergeant Garst rapped out perimeter security orders to some, shouted, “Follow me!” to others, and leaped in. As the truck sank, Matt saw struggling people through the rear window. He dove deep, reaching into the truck, coming up with two women and an infant. Clutching all three to his chest, he flutter-kicked them to shore against the current, turned, dove back in and pulled out a drowning man. Other Marines got to Zaheed and saved him and several others.
Using his limited Pashto, Matt questioned the men and determined all the truck’s occupants were alive and accounted for: two men, three women, two kids and an infant. Zaheed suffered a broken ankle and deep lacerations. Matt deployed more security, figuring the noise might attract Taliban, then bandaged Zaheed and fashioned him a splint from two antennas. Garst arranged transport both for Zaheed to a military medical facility, and home, for the shivering Afghan civilians. Can you guess what he did next? Yup. He formed up his troops and led them back to their patrol base, where he said, “Once we got the family out and on the shore, I felt good — like I hadn’t let anybody down.” No, you didn’t, Matt. Semper Fi, Marine.
By John Connor