January 9, 2009

Wounded Army veteran tells students his story

Standing in his U.S. Army fatigues in front of Bristol Eastern High School teacher Barbara Kaminski’s class Friday, Cpl. Matt Lavoie told students the worst thing he had to eat in Iraq was a goat’s eyeball.
Eeeeewwwwwww! was pretty much the universal response from the two dozen sophomores and juniors listening to the 21-year-old wounded veteran’s account of his time in the Army.
Lavoie, who is returning to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the nation’s capital on Sunday for more surgeries on his shattered right arm and his right leg, told the students about Iraq, about his sounds, about what he’s learned from the terrible explosion on Sept. 30 that nearly took his life south of Baghdad.
As he lay bleeding on the ground beside the demolished Humvee he had been driving before the improvised explosive device, Lavoie said he hit bottom, seeing a bright light before starting to shake "and feel real cold."
His buddies kept him from slipping away, he said.
"I opened my eyes and said ‘I aint’ going yet.’" Lavoie told the students.
Seven times, he almost died that day, Lavoie said, but he pulled through with help from his fellow soldiers and a medical response that saved him.
After at least 11 surgeries so far, and many more to come, Lavoie’s right arm, which dangled beside him like a flag flapping in the breeze in the aftermath of the roadside bomb, is a puzzle of skin grafts, bolts, muscle taken from his back.
"It hurts," he said quietly, especially in the cold. "It seems like it’s getting worse and worse. I’ve got screws popping out in different directions."
Lavoie, 21, said he hopes to return to active duty, to deploy again someday with his unit, perhaps to Afghanistan. But he also said the Army will probably kick him out due to the severity of his wounds.
Lavoie said he’s not sorry he enlisted, that the trauma he experienced in Iraq has changed him for the better, has made him into a man.
The "class clown" who graduated from Eastern in 2005 with poor grades but many friends told stu-dents Friday that he made mistakes in high school.
"Don’t try to the cool kid," he told the students, some of whom he knew because they had older siblings. "Stay in school. Get good grades."
"There’s no excuse to be failing school because it’s easy," Lavoie said, adding that working hard and getting through college should be the top goal.
But Lavoie extolled the military as well, offering it as an alternative for some that can help pay for education.
What he loves about serving in the Army, he said, is that "it’s a brotherhood. These people are like family."
He said that he would do anything for the men with whom he served – and has.
When one fell during an ambush, Lavoie said, he instinctively ran through a hail of machine gun fire to rescue him.
"I could feel the wind and whistle of the bullets whizzing by," he said.
Sometimes, though, there’s nothing anyone can do.
A sergeant stepped on a mine about 10 yards from Lavoie during one patrol, he said, and moments later "it rained body parts."
Lavoie said he found a piece of the man in his pocket at the end of the patrol.
He said that he "dropped to my knees. I was just shocked."
"That was the roughest day I’ve seen," Lavoie said. He said he cried.
"It’s always going to burn me," he said. "It’s always going to get to me."
Lavoie said that despite the bloodshed and the horror, he has come to see the value of standing up for his country.
"The flag is the most important thing when you’re a soldier," Lavoie said. "They tell you the starts on the flag follow you into battle."
As Lavoie recounted his experiences, including the poor conditions in Iraq and even the necessity of gunning down youngsters who approach wearing bombs, Mayor Art Ward stood nodding to the side.
He stopped by the classroom to thank Lavoie for his service after learning the young soldier wanted to meet the mayor, who saw more than his share of combat in Vietnam in the U.S. Marines after graduating from high school in 1965.
When Lavoie stopped talking, the mayor walked over to the soldier and hugged him.
"Welcome home, buddy," Ward said.
But at least for now, a part of Lavoie is still back in Iraq.
He said that when someone dropped a pile of plates at a Macaroni Grill, he dived under the table, "just shaking."
"Your body just snaps into something and you’re like a robot," Lavoie said.
When Kaminski asked if he recalled hitting the floor, Lavoie said no.
"I came out of it and it was like, ‘whoah, dude, I’m under the table,’" Lavoie said.
Sometimes he sleepwalks, he said, and often has nightmares.
"I had five last night," Lavoie told the class. "Three hours of sleep."
He said he remains "deathly afraid of driving."
But, Lavoie said, he tries not to show the extent of his horrors.
"I bury it down deep. No one really sees it," Lavoie said.

Also see:
Lavoie comes home for the holidays
Lavoie recounts an awful day in Iraq

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com


Forever Thankful said...

God Bless, Welcome Home and Thank You for your service to our country Matt Lavoie and all of our veterans who serve in "Harm's Way."

Anonymous said...

Bristol should be very proud of this young man, his positive attitude and message.

Anonymous said...

Ward just couldn't pass up the photo op!! Had to be there right Wardie Boy?