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Matthew Clayton

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Forty Days and Forty Nights

Navy Corpsman from Iowa scribes details of Iraqi War

By Jody Ewing
August 21, 2003
All photos courtesy Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton (center) and other Navy Corpsmen in Basra.

It was starting to get cold after the sun went down — not like a Midwest winter night, but chilly, even in our bulky MOPP gear issued for protection from biological and chemical attacks. My section of TOW missile-equipped Humvees had just been attached to an infantry company less than 20 minutes earlier. We were to follow them to an intersection a few klicks south of the only bridge over the river Basra, into the city of Basra, for many kilometers east and west. At this intersection, we were to set up a security for a blocking force of tanks to occupy until the Brits took it over the next day. My section never made it to the intersection that night.

In the first of many detailed journal entries — this one aptly titled “That First Night” — U.S. Navy Corpsman and Onawa, Iowa, native Matthew Clayton describes the series of events that took him completely around the world by plane, Humvee, on foot and by ship, going through every time zone on the planet.

matt-clayton-ship-basraMatt Clayton, a Navy hospital corpsman who served with the Marines on Iraq’s frontline, was a college senior and gifted mathematician who hoped to complete his education and teach algebra at the college level once he finished his tour in Iraq. He is shown here aboard the USS Boxer near Solomon Islands, returning from Iraq.

The bulk of his writing, however, focused on the 40 days and 40 nights he spent in Iraq, fighting side-by-side with soldiers on the frontline of the war.

As a Navy hospital corpsman who served with the Marines, Clayton joined the ranks of John Bradley, the young Navy corpsman who, along with five other soldiers, raised an American flag on Mount Suribachi after the Battle of Iwo Jima. Trained as specialists in combat medicine, Navy corpsman go into battle with Marines and provide life-saving aid to those wounded in combat — including the wounded enemy. Clayton’s TOW platoon served with the Marine Corps’ 1st Tank Battalion.

Stationed permanently in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., the 28-year-old returned to Iowa earlier this month to spend time with his family and friends.

The son of Kim Berens, a nurse, and retired Marine Lance Clayton, both of Onawa, he also is this writer’s nephew. We talked about the war and that first night, where a small barking dog, Iraqis with AK-47s, one little boy, and pitch-black conditions set off a chain reaction of gunfire and what Matt called “archetypal gut reactions.”

What set off the events that night?

We had halted to do reconnaissance on a junkyard-like complex of buildings and above-ground fuel tanks, and my vehicle was stopped in the driveway of a darkened residence with a chain link fence. A dog emerged from the fenced area and ran around our vehicle, barking, while over radio traffic in my helmet I heard there were four dismounts (Iraqis) carrying AK-47s about 300 meters to our northwest. They were moving quickly from berm to berm and coming towards us, using cover and concealment.

Line charges used to clear minefield near BaghdadPowerful line charges are used to clear a minefield on a road near Baghdad.

Then, I saw a faint outline of a person standing next to one of the smaller buildings, and, my hands on the trigger, yelled something like “Freeze!” but he disappeared with only a sidestep. I heard him call for the dog, and when a pickup passed by, the headlights showed a young boy — who couldn’t have been more than 10  holding that dog. We’d dropped millions of flyers telling [the civilians] to stay inside, and here I’d almost blasted a young boy the very first night of the war.

What happened then?

4 Alpha, a wingman, yelled that the dismounts had just gone prone, and that one was aiming his weapon right at me. He said, “Kill him! F— (expletive)  he’s firing!” And just as I heard 4 Alpha say that last, I saw two orange streaks zip through trees high and to my right. We jumped into our vehicle and floored it… we were bringing the heavy gun back to support the others.

Sgt. Miller, our section leader, screamed “4 Alpha, direct my fire!” and before I even pondered what was about to happen, a .50-cal machine gun started belching hot lead right above my head. We eventually exterminated them with extreme prejudice. The carnage and destruction resulting from their deliberate and accurate fire are burned into my memory forever.

Can you contrast growing up in Iowa to what you saw it was like for those growing up in Iraq?

US Navy Corpsman and Iraq War veteran Matthew ClaytonMatt Clayton hugs his mother, Kim Berens, during a visit home to Iowa after his return from Iraq.

It was actually really sad. The people of Iraq could and should be one of the wealthiest countries in the world because of their oil reserves. But almost 95 percent of the people lived in total poverty, just squalor, shacks, barefoot, rags for clothes, no electricity, hand-pumped water out of ground wells. That was virtually all the country that I saw except for in Baghdad.

How would you describe the pulse of the country in Baghdad?

There was just overwhelming joy everywhere we went. No Iraqi civilian ever had a bad word to say to any of us at any time. Parents would come out with tears in their eyes, carrying their babies, thanking us for giving their children a chance at a better life.

Baghdad is not like a third world at all. It’s industrialized, and all that was just taken away from them. They’d tell us which schools had caches of weapons and where people were selling guns. Kids would actually bring pens out and want us to autograph their hands or their soccer balls. You’d see 50 or 100 servicemen’s names on it already from other units that had been on patrol. It felt very strange.

Did you and other troops ever discuss why you thought you were there?

Iran-Iraq Memorial in BaghdadThe Iran-Iraq memorial in Baghdad where Clayton’s battalion set up a tactical operations base.

Oil, plain and simple. That was the general rumor amongst the troops before we left. We listened to Bush, and even when he did the you’ve-got-48-hours thing and gave that speech, we listened to it on the radio in Kuwait, and all the Marines in my unit were like “Bullshit.” He was talking about this “axis of evil,” and “terrorists” and “weapons of mass destruction,” and we’re like, whatever. We’re going over there for oil and we all know it. In fact, instead of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” someone in my platoon made up a big sign that said Operation Iraqi Liberation with the first letters of each word in bold print and underlined so the sign clearly read O I L. Our platoon commander made him take it down.

Despite the reasons you felt you were there, did you feel most Americans supported your efforts or did it feel like Vietnam all over again?

U.S. Navy Corpsman Matt Clayton with his parentsMatt with his mother, Kim Berens, and father, Lance Clayton, during a visit home to Iowa after first returning from Iraq.

It felt like the people were behind us for sure, but we really had no contact. We got mail only twice while we were in Iraq. We never had a sense that we were going to come back and be called baby-killers or things like that. Everyone was extremely supportive.

What did you fear most while over there?

First and foremost, getting killed. When we first crossed over from Kuwait into Iraq, we didn’t want to get attacked by gas or slimed by chemical weapons. We had superiority as far as technology and equipment and numbers  and morale  so the chemical stuff was really on our minds at first, but then as we went more and more, about 80-90 percent of their entire armed forces just deserted the very first night we were there.

So the morale was good?

I don’t think morale was ever bad, but we were a bit anxious to get home. After we left Baghdad, we were camped out in southern Iraq waiting for these heavy equipment trucks to come and pick up the tanks. After our mission in the country was done, we were just waiting to get out and it was a little bit worse. We hadn’t had a shower for 40 days. We were ready to get out of there.

What are your plans for the future?

US Navy Corpsman Matthew Clayton

U.S. Navy Corpsman Matt Clayton

I have two years left in the Navy and I’ll probably be with the Marines those two years. Right now I don’t plan on reenlisting or extending. I really liked it except the war thing kind of turned me off. I’m a senior in college, and am going to finish my mathematics degree and use my money from the Navy and the GI Bill to get my masters. I want to teach math or algebra someday, most likely at a community college. I’m not sure where I’m going to go, but you can teach math anywhere in the world.

Excerpts of this article first appeared in the Weekender on August 21, 2003.

Copyright © Jody Ewing

* Author’s postscript to this story: Matt Clayton, like many others who spent time on Iraq’s frontline, has battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since his tour in Iraq.

In May 2010, he was scheduled to sit down for a visit with U.S. Senate candidate (Ret.) Lt. Col. Bob Krause and Iraq veteran Maria Deike to discuss war vets’ ongoing needs and the difficulties they face recapturing former dreams and lives. Krause — former Iowa Democratic Veterans Caucus Chair — has worked tirelessly to bring to the forefront important veterans’ issues such as PTSD, substance abuse and homelessness.

Although the event was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, Krause went on to spearhead the Veterans’ National Recovery Center (VNRC), a 501(c)(3) corporation that brings awareness to the massive influx of PTSD veterans from the 911 Wars and works with other agencies to provide much-needed services to veterans struggling to reintegrate into society. 

Matt recently began working on a novel and shares other stories on his blog at MatthewEClayton.com/blog. He enjoys hearing from readers and other veterans and welcomes all feedback. He continues to explore ways in which he may be able to contribute to the Veterans National Recovery Center project.


Double Tragedy for One Iowa Family

I can’t begin to imagine what Ann and Bill Byers of Schleswig, Iowa, must be going through right now.

One might think there could be nothing worse than losing a young son — with an infant daughter of his own — to a war launched under questionable circumstances. There is: losing another — the only remaining son and also a soldier — two days before the first son’s funeral. The double tragedy carries an unspeakable amount of grief, particularly for the residents of the small town of only 850.

Sgt. Casey Byers, 22 — a member of the Ottumwa-based Company B 224th Engineering Battaliona stationed at Ramadi — was killed Saturday, June 11, when a roadside bomb exploded directly beneath his Humvee south of Ramadi in Iraq. He was the 28th Iowan to die in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Another Iowa soldier, 28-year-old Spc. James Migues, Jr. of Ottumwa, was on foot patrol in front of the Humvee and injured during the explosion. Another soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Neal Prince of Colorado, also was killed in the incident.

According to unit commander Lt. Col. Todd Jacobus of Des Moines, the tragedy was intensely personal to the soldiers’ fellow comrades. In an e-mail to the fallen soldiers’ family and friends, Jacobus recalled that Byers “told people that his first name was ‘THE,’ as in ‘THE BYERS.’ He was very proud that he had a daughter, and told many of the other soldiers that he was ‘the world’s greatest dad,’ commenting how he couldn’t wait to get home and spend time with his parents and daughter.”

That wasn’t the only thing on the young soldier’s mind. Lt. Col. Jacobus went on to write that “Spc. Byers had told members of his platoon that he had a brother in a United States Army Reserve transportation company out of Sac City, and that his unit was supposed to be mobilized in the fall. Spc. Byers had humorously mentioned to many that ‘Iraq can’t handle two Byers at the same time.’”

Neither Byers, nor Jacobus, could possibly have foreseen the twist of fate about to take place.

Two days before Byers’ funeral, his 19-year-old brother, Justin “Paul,” was struck and killed by a truck while walking out of a ditch along U.S. Highway 30 about a mile west of Vail, Iowa. According to the Des Moines Register, the younger Byers was hit around 9:40 p.m. Monday night.

Funeral services for Casey Byers, a 2001 graduate of Ar-We-Va High School in Vail, Iowa, are scheduled for today at 11 a.m. at the Company C 1st-168th Infantry Iowa Army National Guard in Denison. His cremated remains will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia at a later date. Services are still pending for his younger brother.

The brothers are survived by their parents and one sister, Jennifer, as well as Casey’s infant daughter, Hailey.

My heart goes out to this family who lives but 35 miles from me — “neighbors” as we rural Iowans call them — whose names I never knew until this June. May God, and peace, be with them all.

Americans Deserve Answers to These 5 Questions

By now, most of you are aware of the “Downing Street Memo” – the document that quotes a high-ranking British official as stating that by July of 2002, Bush had made up his mind to take military action against Iraq. The memo flatly states that “the facts and intelligence were being fixed around the policy” in order to justify a decision that already had been made.

Another memo — the “Personal Secret UK Eyes Only” briefing paper from that July 2002 meeting — shows that British officials worried about creating the conditions in which they could legally support military action because they knew the facts made no case for the war Bush had decided to wage. Yes, you heard that correctly – “creating” the conditions. In the Introduction, Section I states:

“The US Government’s military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But, as yet, it lacks a political framework. In particular, little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it.”

And in Section 3 of the Introduction:

This is particularly important for the UK because it is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action. Otherwise we face the real danger that the US will commit themselves to a course of action which we would find very difficult to support.

One can only imagine what’s going through the minds of parents who already have buried their U.S. soldier/children, or parents and spouses who might face burying their loved ones in the future? And all these deaths for military action where political conditions had to be created?

In response to these revelations, Representative John Conyers – ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee – is calling on the Administration to level with the American public about the decision to go to war. He has created a petition calling on the Bush Administration to answer five very important questions regarding the timing of its decision. The Bush Administration, however, has not yet replied to Representative Conyers’ letter, nor have they responded to 89 Members of Congress who submitted the very same questions on May 5, 2005.

Yesterday, members of Gold Star Families for Peace, a national organization of families whose loved ones died as a result of the war in Iraq, met with Members of Congress to call on them to support a “Resolution of Inquiry” into the so-called Downing Street Memo.

Today at 2 pm GSFP co-founder Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, California will join others in testifying at a Democratic hearing before Rep. Conyers as well as other congressional members. Sheehan’s son, Army SPC Casey Sheehan, was killed in Sadr City, Baghdad, on April 4, 2004.

On the website Military Families Speak Out, member Lisa Gill put together her own list of (15) questions she would like to ask Congress, including (to name a few):

— Are you aware that over 1685 of our American children/soldiers have been killed as a result of “your” decision?

— Are you aware that over 6407 of our American children/soldiers have been so severely wounded that they have had to come home, most with lost limbs or other disabilities that will prevent them from doing the jobs they dreamed about doing when leaving the military?

— Are you aware that over 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians have been killed or severely wounded as a result of your decision to go to war?

The last two, however, are real zingers:

— Is whatever political gain you personally received by supporting this war worth it?

— Do you have trouble sleeping at night?

You may want to click on the “Letters” section of the MFSO site, but grab your tissues first. These are Real families of military members with profound stories of anger and loss.

Writes one mother: “I had been conned, and this realization broke my heart. Was my son’s life and the lives of other mothers’ sons and daughters of so little value that our country would enter a war and put them in danger without concrete evidence?” She goes on to say:

“Sadly, on this Mother’s Day, mothers of U.S. service people in Iraq are confronted with the disconcerting knowledge that our government has been manipulating the news such as the TV shot depicting Iraqis carrying an American flag crying “Thank you, Bush, Thank you, United States” shown to Americans during the prime-time news. It was not filmed spontaneously in Iraq as the American public was led to believe, but rather filmed in the United States by our government. Our tax dollars at work, to deceive us.”

Another member writes: “God help us for who we have given privilege to the highest office in the land.”

Robert Kennedy, Jr., also has many concerns about the press and voters behaving irrationally. In an interview with “Planet” editor Tom Valtin, Kennedy calls the “Endless Negligence of Press” a “Top Threat to Democracy.” He says:

“The press is letting this president get away with policies without ground truth in them, and by that I mean the easily discernable lies of this White House on so many issues—from Medicare to the environment, the Iraq war to the budget. If we had an active, independent press that was willing to speak truth to power, the voters in this country would not be behaving irrationally. A democracy relies on an aggressive, independent press, and we no longer have that.”

If you’ve seen little media coverage of the Downing Street Memo and Eyes Only briefing, now you know why. Hopefully, if you’ve gotten this far in this post, you’ll want to click here to read Rep. Conyers’ letter and five questions and add your name as a co-signer.

Military families – indeed, all Americans – deserve answers to these questions.