-By Nik Matoka -
The day after I got out of the Marine Corps, I was very fortunate. I had a support network. I had parents that let me move into their house with my wife and my daughter, who had not yet turned one year old. I had a cousin with a landscaping business that was always too nice to turn down an extra helper. I had a father-in-law who, if the landscaping didn't turn out to be my gig, was ready to (and did) get me a job as a groundskeeper, picking up garbage, for apartment communities. I had a good friend that would tell me every day that I needed to get a college degree. I also had countless other family and friends that I knew genuinely cared about me. Most importantly, I had a wife that was willing to support my decisions, and put up with the mental scars from Iraq that I made visible every day.
I understand that not everyone is as blessed as I am to have that amazing amount of support. However, sometimes I think there is more support out there than some may realize, and the difficult part isn't finding support, it's asking for help and accepting help. For the purposes of this blog post, I want to focus on education.
I really didn't want to go back to school. I barely graduated high school with a two-point-something-pathetic GPA and was pretty sure I didn't remember a single part of the whole education of high school. Even though I had applied and was accepted into college, I had a strong feeling I wasn't going to make it. I joined the Marine Corps since I loved watching the "shock and awe" from March 2003 (three months before I graduated high school) and one of my favorite movies was watching the Humvee drivers/machine gunners roll through Somalia in Black Hawk Down.
Mike, my best friend since the eighth grade, was still there for me when I got out of the Marine Corps. He had taken the traditional route of students at my high school and went straight to college after graduating. Mike, as well as my dad, regularly told me I needed to go to college. Since I had already heard that my entire school life, I didn't think it had much of an impact on me… but I guess years of hearing someone tell you something can make you give in just so that you don't have to hear it any more. I decided to dip my toes in the water by signing up for a Philosophy elective at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC).
Just like anyone else going into a classroom for the first time after a few years off, I was nervous. All the stereotypical feelings were there:
I felt like everyone else knew each other.
I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I'd rather be cutting grass or picking up trash (okay, maybe that's not a stereotypical feeling). But – I went through the motions. I took notes, I studied, I did the homework, and low and behold, I ended up with an "A". At some point, I realized that I hadn't done any of those three things when I was in high school (took notes, studied, completed homework). It gave me a glimmer of hope, maybe I could do school.
One class led to another. After community college I went to a traditional college for my bachelor's degree. After my bachelor's, I completed classes at a university and received my master's degree.
The point I want to make with this blog post isn't to talk about personal accomplishments, it's the fact that someone was willing to help me and give me advice, and by finally accepting it, my life got better. I now have a job where I can support my family, which now includes a son as well.
As veterans, we naturally don't want to ask for help and we naturally don't want to accept it either. That may get you far in the military, but it's a mentality that will handicap you in civilian life. The more help you ask for, the more help you receive. Think of help as a weapon in your arsenal. The more help you receive, the more lethal you will be in the civilian world. Of course, don't just ask and receive, give what you can as well.
Despite help being there, I know the challenges are numerous. Not a day goes by where I'm not affected by sights, smells, and sounds of my time in Iraq. However, with help, I'm still able to succeed.
Thank you to everyone who has, and continues to, help me along the way.