As part of my continuing efforts to honor veterans, I recently interviewed Navy SEAL Matt Nasveschuk, who served with SEAL Team 2.
Nasveschuk served in Afghanistan, and I found his story of service (and especially his wisdom and reflections on it), so inspiring.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Where were you born? (And/or what was your hometown?)
I was born in Rutland, Vermont.
When did you serve and where? Also rank attained.
I joined the Navy in February 2007, where I served as a Navy SEAL and Combat medic with Team 2 in Panama and Afghanistan before separating in April 2013.
Who was your childhood hero?
In real life, I was big into playing and watching hockey (I was a goalie), so my idols and heroes were goalies like Patrick Roy and Dominic Hasek, or players like Steve Yzerman. For movies, Jim Carrey and Mel Brooks. Marvel, Spider-man, and Wolverine. Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, and Yoda, but always a fascination with Darth Vader.
What made you want to join up?
9/11 happened when I was a senior in high school. I have family from New York City and it felt like they were attacked. I wanted to do something about it, but my parents convinced me that college is a great way to get from 18 to 22 years old.
I was raised with the attitude that if we didn’t know something or wanted to learn more, then read a book. Eventually, I had read so many books about the Navy SEALs that I started thinking, “Why couldn’t I do it?” My idea was to be well trained enough and increase my team’s chances of surviving by sneaking around and whatever clandestine activities were needed.
I knew if I never tried that I would always regret it. I had to, and I was compelled to serve, and I would take it as far as I could. I’d learn about myself along the way, and see where my limitations were.
After expressing my goals to my parents toward the end of college, they encouraged me, again, to expand my knowledge base by taking a scuba diving course. Little did they know that I took it one step further to my first skydiving free fall jump (not tandem).
I was going to do it.
Tell us some of the big lessons you learned from serving.
Resourcefulness: There are so many aspects of what makes a team that even though I wouldn’t want to do any of the support’s jobs, (for the most part) they didn’t want to do our job either! And operating on a mutual respect for each other’s professional decisions made operating all the more smooth. Simply put, there were times when we needed help, and being willing to engage or be engaged in those moments forged tremendous relationships that shined while overseas.
You are not as cool as you think you are. Ego is terrible. I saw some of the best and worst kinds of people. It takes all kinds to get a job like this done, and that means a bell curve of people. I would rather not discuss the fact that humanity has a capacity for terrible things, but rather focus on the positive. I served with some of the best; some who have passed and some who continue to serve in new respects now like Mike Hayes (my Command Officer at SEAL Team 2, White House Fellow, and currently Chief Digital Transformation Officer at VMWare). Or, Britt Slabinski, who I only met overseas but who would go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor). Or, one of the few surviving quadruple amputees, Travis Mills (I met him when I visited Bo Reichenbach at Walter Reed Medical Hospital, https://travismillsfoundation.org/). And there are so many others who continue to inspire, and are a little more available recently on social media like Jason Redman (who was shot in the face), or Marcus Luttrell (Lone Survivor book and movie featuring Mark Wahlburg).
Celebrate victories, but there is more work to be done.
Your career is on you. I failed myself in preparation for transition. Most everyone wants to believe they are done, and that we could coast on the thing we already did. Rude awakening after transition.
It was a complete reinvention of what it means to be me. My first goal was to put my wife through her Physical Therapy Doctorate, where I worked anywhere from a hedge fund to a hair salon to make it happen. The mission was to be her support net so she could focus on her studies at the University of Saint Augustine, which was shoe-horning four years into two and a quarter years.
Finally, it was my turn, and it was a long road. I went back to basics. I relearned sentence structure and grammar while writing my essays that gained me a conditional acceptance at Saint Leo University’s Master of Business Administration program. Later, I graduated with two master’s degrees, the other being in Accounting.
The degrees landed me an entry-level job at a global firm, where I have done well. I found my niche in the digital space, which is not what I was trained for in school and had little experience. But, this is where the battle was going and where I could provide real value. And now with two boys, life is amazing and filled with purpose.
If I could do it over again, I would have been trying to build for that job I wanted because we only leave service in a few ways; on our own terms, NOT on our own terms, or we are dead.
What was your most harrowing experience, that you’re willing to share? (This can be a training event, as I think most civilians aren’t aware of how dangerous even peacetime service can be.)
We were a fighting force, and I’m happy to say we were the first team in 10 years to bring home everyone alive. Commander Mike Hayes received a Bronze Star for this feat shortly after we returned home. But, our time was not without hardship.
I was rear security and about 25 feet behind two friends in my five-man element, when the man in the three spot around the corner stepped on an improvised explosive device (approximated at 20 pounds).
Though I couldn’t see the man at the moment the explosion went off, the fourth was hit as the debris lifted, hitting him in the chest and face.
Suddenly, I had two patients.
We rolled out differently that one time as we headed to our hold-up for the night. The three-man was in my spot.
Both men survived. Bo Reichenbach lost both of his legs above the knee and later went on to play in the Paralympics in Seoul, Korea as an Ice Hockey Goalie and took Silver. His son, Landon, and wife, Lacy, helped rebuild him. Landon was enamored with his “Ironman Legs.” Bo Reichenbach is now the Vice President of a non-profit called Warriors Choice Foundation, which provides holistic medicine to combat veterans. This includes service dogs, among other physiological and psychological support avenues.
Chris S. survived with a detached retina in his left eye and in his right eye, he can see about 20/30. While he didn’t have a wife at the time, he eventually met and married his wife, and now they have two kids. Chris went back to school and found his way into medical school and will soon be on clinical rotations before being placed in residency as he pursues being an Emergency Room Doctor.
This story, and many others, is lightly discussed in Mike Hayes's book called “Never Enough,” where all profits go towards paying mortgages for “Gold Star Families,” which is to say the surviving families who lost someone in the war.
What do you wish those who have never served better understood?
Approach a veteran with an authentic and vulnerable thanks. And if they are willing to tell their story, let them. Personally, I struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the only thing that has worked has been telling my story. Not pills. Not counseling. And when that story is told, it is not for sympathy. It is for perspective.
What does that even mean?! It means suddenly my nephew is an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Tech. It means I’ve coached two friends into the Navy SEALs after they heard the story and steeled themselves about their potential future. It means a friend of mine recommitted and went back to school, finished his masters, and is now working on his Doctorate of Organizational Management.
The choice of how you want to be has always been yours. Then, acting on your decisions means the power is yours to move the world forward. More often than not, it is for other people that gives sharing our stories purpose.
Are there any service members that you know, or served with, that you’d like to honor their sacrifice by naming?
Kevin Ebbert was part of the incoming team when we were leaving. He was the medic that took my room, and just before Thanksgiving in 2012 he was shot and killed. There were another handful of people that passed after we left, and it culminated in the Commanding Officer of that relieving team committing suicide.
There is a tremendous capacity for compassion and empathy to be learned from war fighters, because the purpose is not about war, it’s about the guy next to us, it’s about the families back home, and the lengths one will go to protect our loved ones.
What piece of foreign or domestic policy frustrates you to no end?
I’m not going to engage here.
Tell me the most heroic thing you ever saw, if you can.
There are so many stories. As a medic, while I had my opportunities to get involved, my role had me placed strategically that I could move flexibly between different segments.
Rockets. Mortars. Small arms gun fire. Sniper fire. I walked among giants. Everyone would downplay their experience because we all know that it was part of the job. It was what we signed up for.
One of the first times getting shot at was by a sniper. Confused for the briefest moment, we tucked behind micro-terrain until we had to make a mad dash to the next area. My teammate turns to me and yells, “DANGER ZONE” as if from the TV show “Archer,” then runs across the opening.
You can freeze and fail, or act and have a chance.
We were clearing a small house. And our partner force says, “There is a hole right here.” And jumps up and down. I jumped out of the way, best I could, and nothing happened. The partner force laughing at me for what may have looked comical. I stood up and started yelling for them to get out of there. I brought in our EOD Tech, Mike Charlie, and we ended up pulling out about seventy-five pounds of explosives between mortars, an explosive radio, and an anti-tank shape charge that our partner force was fortunate enough to not have set off.
Some days, I sit and wonder just how in the heck we survived.
This is why Memorial Day and Veterans Day are so heavy. They remind us of our existential crisis as we question our continued purpose and why we are here and other good people are not.
At the end of it all. We want our friends and family to live their most fulfilling lives. Celebrate how you will and how you see fit. America is great because we have the choice to do better, to give more, and live our dreams.
Share with us a story of a leader who inspired you while you served.
Mike Hayes. He’s still my hero. I read his book and had an emotional response to it all because it was a clearer picture of the leadership battles on our behalf, which I would never have heard otherwise. And specifically, the locals celebrated the transition between Mike leaving and the incoming Commander. The celebration was lost among the internal turmoil of my injured brothers and the process of leaving.
However, Mike Hayes is one of many inspirational leaders, and sharing their stories is a chance for their teammates’ legacy to live on and to have a voice.
What do you wish for the country?
We all want the same thing; to live happy and free. Calm breeds calm. Hate breeds hate. Going overseas and seeing it for myself that the locals (i.e., not bad guys) all want the same thing as us, and we’re only just ahead of where they are. We all have more in common than we think.
Choose wisely. We have two ears and one mouth. We should listen more than we speak.
Any closing thoughts or anything you’d like to add?
Nothing good comes from hate. You are capable of amazing feats. And the past does not define who you are, but the choices and actions you take can make all the difference in the world. And sometimes, all it takes is making the choice to be there for someone. In my case, my brothers are alive and their kids have their dads. My wife has her Physical Therapy Doctorate. My nephew has a career. Life is what you make it. So, to quote Mike Hayes, “Make it great.”
Thank you for reading, taking the time, and thanks to Stan Mitchell for the opportunity.
I wanted to thank Matt Nasveschuk for sharing his story. Please share this post if you enjoyed it.
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Stan R. Mitchell
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