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11. Eat The Apple

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August 8, 2018 11:10 a.m.

Matt Young is an Iraq war veteran. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 18, after driving drunk into a fire hydrant. That jolt convinced him that he needed to find direction in his life and, in his own words, "man up." What follows is a brutal, self-aware story about being a victim and perpetrator of abuse, feeling pressure to tell lies he thought civilians wanted to hear, and absurdist snapshots of war that most other accounts gloss over.

Contributor: Matt Young. His debut novel is "Eat The Apple."
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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Justin Hudnall: 00:05 From so say we all and KPBS in San Diego. Welcome back to incoming, the public radio series that features true stories from American service members, told in their own words straight from their own mouths. I'm your host, justin hudnall. Today we're spending this episode with Iraq war veteran matt young, whose debut novel, eat the Apple Chronicles, his journey as an aimless 18 year old who enlisted in the Marine Corps hours after driving drunk into a fire hydrant, a jolt that convinced him that he needed to find direction in his life and his own words, man up. What follows is a brutal story about being both the victim and perpetrator of hazing and abuse, feeling pressured to tell the lies he thought civilians wanted to hear, and absurdist snapshots of war and the training for it, that most other accounts gloss over because they're too ugly, too embarrassing, or just too fricking honest. Some points in this book, it feels like he doesn't want you to like them. I'm not sure I even like him.
Justinn Hudnall: 01:03 So say we all had flown him out to run a masterclass for veteran writers, which he killed at so hard that one of our class participants ended up having a piece created in matt's class published afterwards; that later on that night after he performed at a reading, we all went to a bar to celebrate in it. It was all going great because we're all experienced, somewhat adults who know how to moderate until we were about to call it a night. We were all getting ready to head home and then Matt young author of Eat the Apple, who we're going to spend the next hour with, magically reappeared back in our midst with his arms brimming with sloshing, amber shot glasses of an Irish whiskey I can't name for legal reasons, but I think should be used to remove nail Polish more than drink. And there's this latent dumb elephant, insecure competitive dude part of my brain, but thankfully lays dormant most of the time. But in a situation like that it can pop up and take control as it did that night. So I took the shot along with everybody else and when I felt my legs buckle, it was matt's face I locked onto as I fell gracelessly heavily backwards onto the concrete patio of the bar that night, and I can tell you with absolute clarity, Matt young was smiling from ear to ear. Because sometimes that's how guys make friends with each other. I hope one day I'll get him back for it, but today is not the day. Today we tell stories. And so without further ado, I'd like you to meet my friend, I think: the enlisted as **** Marine Corps veteran and novelist Matt Young.
Matt Young: 02:37 "Meeting the Mortar God:" In October 2006 at Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona on a weapons range with no name in the middle of the desert, there is a mountain where the mortar God lives. He commands from his vantage all smooth bore, muzzle loaded high angle of fire weapons, and drops imminent death with impunity where he deems it should land. The 81 millimeter mortar crewmen are his favorite children. We are they as followers of the mortar god, we are fanatical extremists. We live and die by the smell of burnt black powder charges mixed with singed, delightful bore cleaning compound. We C covet Lindsatic compasses screen repetition in tongues. As we lay our guns online and the direction of fire, the motor, God's mountain is covered in scrub and loose gravel. When the Scorpions chase our shadows and rattlesnake Schick, their bones is we run past our bodies, sweat beneath our camouflage utilities, our calves, ball and flex and push lactic acid to our quads and hamstrings our crotches chafe and our guts clench as the rubber soles of our boots slip on shale and sand and what we assume are the bones of those who came before us. We are elated and panicked and lusty and furious and prideful and strong and monstrous. There's he run the hill to face them, order God. We have been told once you reached the top to pray and seek forgiveness for the transgressions. We have committed to warrant our presence in the mortar God's domain. We did not check the sites before firing or we aimed in the wrong sticks or we didn't punch the boar or we stack the ammo incorrectly. We were again, meritoriously promoted this time to corporal and so we are punished. When our squad fucks up, it doesn't matter. We will visit the pain upon them tenfold. We are to pray with our diaphragms, push the air from our lungs, heart enough for all below to hear so that they may understand our faults and in their understanding be purified if their own transgressions. We earned this. We want this. We are terrified. We reached the top testicles in our throats, flush crawling with clammy coolness, shaking on unsteady legs. We invoke the mortar God. We bellow and beat our chests strain, our vocal chords, and later in the desert dusk, we tell stories of his appearance cloaked in white phosphorous, armored and high explosive fingers thick, as thick as mortar tubes.
Matt Young: 04:52 It is the mortar God who bids us: Seek out the second of two strip clubs in Yuma. The one that does not card for identification. go forth. He tells us, and in my honor, defile yourselves drink until you've forgotten all fathers before me drink until you were gone, and I'm all that remains. Drink until you drown, and we abide because the mortar God would have it. So the temple of the mortor God, it's named Toppers. Inside it is dark hips, gyrate and watery red rimmed eyes, stock expose, undulating stretchmarks and sincerity and scars under the Strip club black lights our teeth glow like demons, and we've become a spectacle on stage. An exotic dancer fastens a belt around one of our necks for a harness and rides and braids for the pleasure of the mortar God. We sweat our drunkenness between the dancers' thighs, and breathe in the stink of talcum and body glitter.
Matt Young: 05:44 We drive the taps and empty the bottles and leave in our wake, a wasteland of dust and broken glass and bloody knuckles and vomit when the lights come on and the place clears out. We're left in the cold desert night beneath a clear Yuma sky. And Our eyes see twice the number of stars double the dead light and double the time. And when we piss in the alley on a Trashcan, while three coyotes watch, heads cocked and ears perked, we think there might be something too that we announced it. The Mortar God says maybe get a taxi. In the taxi others asked what we really saw up on that mountain in the middle of the desert looking into Mexico, but we don't answer and feign sleep because the thing we saw on top of that mountain was far worse than how we imagine the mortar God. And we can't quite find a way to admit that what we saw, looked a lot like us.
Justin Hudnall: 06:48 Thanks so much for being on incoming.
Matt Young: 06:49 Yeah, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Justin.
Justin Hudnall: 06:51 So why don't we start off with you taking us back to where you were in life and what motivated you to join the Marine Corps.
Matt Young: 06:57 Yeah, I think that's, that's a weird story. I had taken a year off from high school. I had gotten into a bunch of colleges outside of Indiana, which is where I was at the time I was in Fort Wayne. You know, I wanted to go at a state, like most people who grow up in Indiana due to experience something new. I got into schools in Arizona and other places. My parents couldn't afford it and so I ended up just kind of taking a year off of school and I got two jobs. I was working at ups, loading semi trucks and then I was working at Kitty Hawk air cargo, a third shift in the middle of the winter in the Midwest, you know, wearing like a full carhartt suit to work and getting off at 6:00 AM and sleep and during the day and kind of hating life.
Matt Young: 07:35 And I was doing a lot of partying and a lot of drinking with my friends on the weekend. And one Saturday I had gotten drunk and I was driving back from an all night diner called steak and shake. I veered my car into a fire hydrant and I was okay and nobody else got hurt and I made it back home. But I woke up the next morning and my car was pretty total. And uh, I kinda was driving around my total car and passed a, an armed forces recruiting center and decided that that seems like it would be the thing for me to do. Maybe I could do something with my life. I walked in on a Sunday and marine corps fashion with were the only people working on a Sunday, which like now, and I assume that the guy was being punished because he had done something wrong.
Matt Young: 08:12 He's the only guy in the office, so, you know, he probably messed up somehow and ended up having to work a Sunday or something like that. But I walked in and he was there. He gave me a as bad test and said I could have any job that I wanted to have. And I said I want to go in the infantry. Why was that? You know, I think for a lot of reasons, well maybe not for a lot of reasons. I think I was a young teenager and I wanted to hurt people. At that time I was in, I was in a pretty bad place in my life. I was depressed. I didn't like where I was and like what I was doing. I think like violence and rage tends to sprout from that place. I think when you're a young man a lot of the times and you don't really understand who you are or your purpose and so infantry seemed like the way to do that and I think at some level I think too that I wanted to hurt also, you know, I think that it was like penance, like I deserved that thing and so I think that I was kind of in that space.
Justin Hudnall: 09:03 Sounds almost like you were looking for an external force to make real what you were dealing with on the inside on those.
Matt Young: 09:11 Yeah. I think that a life - I don't think that I could quite bring myself to do my self physical harm. The act of that kind of seemed maybe not aggressive but maybe too straightforward and it seemed like, well if it's gonna, you know, if it happens to me, maybe it's a karmic payback or something like that. So it seemed like, well if I deserve it then maybe it'll happen.
Justin Hudnall: 09:28 Matt performed several of his stories, live for us at the So say we all reading series in 2017 where we got to record him at public square in La Mesa, California. Let's take a moment to hear him read his story. "A new species of Yucca" from his debut memoir. Eat The apple.
Matt Young: 09:43 I'm going to start about halfway through. The book kind of follows a, my timeline in my enlistment. Chronologically, I'll, uh, I'll start when I'm deployed.
Matt Young: 09:58 "A new species of Yucca." The leg juts up at an unnatural angle from amount of dirt in the middle of the rolling hills of Iraqi desert hardpan. We have not slept in some hours. We've been rained on for days. We've not been warm and weeks we were out of cigarettes. Cheeks gave us when we stopped at entry control point five to stock up on water. And MREs. Then we traded our last MREs to a village child who could have been an adult for a pack of Godwazus. And our makeshift tarp roof collapsed from the collected water and soak The pack. We tried to salvage the cigarettes, but the filament thin paper disintegrated leaving our fingers sticky with tobacco shavings, mccready, Farron, Sherburne and the lead truck have cigarettes, but they won't share.
Matt Young: 10:38 So when we find the leg, we think we might be delusional for any number of things, but the leg is there and we think we can hear one another's thoughts about the leg. Where this **** leg come from. Why is it in the middle of the desert? Whose leg is it? It's not mine. Is it mine? I bet whoever's it is probably misses it. Is it wearing pants? Think their are cigarettes in the pocket. It is wearing pants. Linen, maybe silk. This could be a rich leg. There is only one leg.
Matt Young: 11:06 [audience laughs] See, I got you all to laugh about a dismembered leg in the desert.
Matt Young: 11:11 There was only one leg, so the other unoccupied pant leg is bunched and flop like a snake. Skin on the mound of dirt covered in mud and camouflaged by the recent rain. We are in the draw where we found the leg behind us as a towering doone of mud and dirt and cracking desert and drawing sand, and we think we feel that doing shifts and breathe and come alive and began pushing us toward the leg. The leg now maybe resembles something like an altar where we were maybe supposed to pray. We will fall at the leg alter and prostrate ourselves and throw our hands in the sky and prayed to the leg to bring us cigarettes and food and a God damn resupply. Then as we begin to neil and thrust our arms to what we think might be our new God, one of us says, maybe I remember Bible is about the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates.
Matt Young: 11:56 He says, maybe I'm making up the stories entirely. He says in the story, so then California is one of two places where the Joshua tree grows. The other is a wreck. He says where the tree grows, so exist the earthly gateways to heaven and hell or some ****. And so we think as the dune at our back, maybe pushes us toward the leg that it might not really be a leg, but at Joshua tree and then our tired eyes watch the leg, begin to sprout limbs and nodules and fronds that resemble a smaller legs and then we might be falling, but it feels like running and it feels like running because we're covered in sweat, but it's not sweat it is water because it is raining and we're running and falling while covered in mud toward a voice that might be Jehovah's or beelzebub's but also might be sergeant Marzus, whom we think of as both. The land has faded into the sky and the sky into the land and it feels like we're rising. But with every step we still fall. Just a little, just a Smidgen, just a **** hair. Somehow we are back in the truck and our makeshift tarp roof is fixed and we sit across from one another soaking wet knees, kissing, catching on the hems of the reinforced fabric of our camouflage utilities. Maybe we are thinking or maybe we are speaking or maybe it's just the sound of our teeth and bones chattering, but it's all saying the same thing and it comes through and layers compounding one on top of another like pound cake and concrete and lung tar and mud and mattresses and tree bark. Which do you think it was. Years later, we still ask the same question.
Matt Young: 13:29 [audience applauds] Oh, You don't have to. Thank you. You don't have to do that.
Justin Hudnall: 13:42 So take us through the transition of what it was like to actually be in the marine corps and how that affected your relationship with yourself in the world. You did four years. You went immediately from Indiana to Pendleton when you signed up?
Matt Young: 13:55 Yeah. Yeah. Indiana is to San Diego and then you, you know, you spend some time at mcrd. Yeah, do the MCRD thing down at basic training and then then I was up at Pendleton for the school of infantry and then I went to the fleet and I think that it hit me in school of Infantry, what I had signed up for. We had combat instructors that had been to Iraq and had been in the push or had been in Mosul or Falujia or any of these other places that you hear horrible stories about Ramadi. They were guys that were willing to tell you what you were getting yourself into. That was kind of horrifying for me to hear in SOI and we had this really kind of -- he wasn't a horrible person, but he liked to screw with younger guys just like most other people do, and so--
Justin Hudnall: 14:39 -- he was one of the salts or one of your --
Matt Young: 14:40 -- One of one of our instructors at SOI. He told us that we are going to go to third marines in Hawaii, which is like, you know, you've kind of won the lottery at that point. You're like, oh great. I get to go spend my time on a tropical island, which I'm sure that the guys in third marines are like, you don't want to live in a tropical island and try and train in the heat. But to us it sounded fantastic. You know, they told us we were going to go to Okinawa and Australia and go on a float right after we got there and then a week before we graduated he came back and said, just want to let you guys know that I was lying. You're going to go to third battalion, Fifth Marines right down the road and you're going to Iraq in January.
Matt Young: 15:14 And so I think at that moment in time, my fear, like elevated? My want and need to cause harm and have harm caused to me kind of dissipated and I, I don't know, I just became super real at that point and I just didn't want to be there anymore. Going into the fleet, you have this moment or it's kind of horrifying and then once you're there you kind of have to put up the front of machismo and masculinity and then that kind of takes the place of everything in your life. This idea of strength and not showing weakness and being tough and the ideas of this kind of skewed masculinity that the military I think presents you with. was kind of how I dealt with that. Like I just adopted that mindset and just became super tough, you know, at least portrayed myself as like super tough. I got promoted fairly quickly and then was in charge of people before I should've been in charge of people. That kind of defined the rest of my four years was this kind of like front that I had put up because of. Because of the fear that I had of, of deploying and dying when it became too real for me.
Matt Young: 16:18 My name is Matt Young. I'm a US Marine Corps infantry veteran. I'm going to be reading "Equal and Opposite."
Matt Young: 16:26 In March of 2006 on main supply route Boston an explosive detonates because that is what explosives are made to do. That is the explosive standard operating procedure. The explosives SOP. step one, explosive is built. Step two, explosive is placed. Step three, explosive is detonated. There's little damage to our lead truck, which has triggered the explosive, a blown out tire, some scorching of the steel armor. The explosive was placed too far off the road. We'll learn later that even small blasts needle into our brains, cause slight compoundable concussive incidents. never blame the blast. That is only what blasts do. People are inside their homes, have shuttered their businesses. Only an hour ago the shops were open and bustling. People swept dust from dirt. Children sold kerosene like we once sold lemonade.
Matt Young: 17:24 Our trucks halt because after a blast, that is what we've been trained to do. That is our sop. If a vehicle can push through a kill zone, it does. If it is disabled, it stays put and The subsequent trucks disperse to a standoff distance, obtain situational awareness and casualty reports and assess the situation. A group of men meerkat in the distance and we stare them down with tiger eyes behind thick windows. Charlie next to me repeats over and over and his Oklahoma drawl, son of a bitch which comes out some bitch. The rest of us say nothing, and when the relay comes over the radio that everyone is five by five, we rocket open the doors and pursue the meerkat men because that is what tigers do.
Matt Young: 18:11 Now there is a man blindfolded and kneeling on uneven rubble-strewn cratered concrete because that is what we do with the guilty after we catch them, we stand around him in an abandoned room that measures 15 feet by 15 feet forward operating base black where we've taken him to be interrogated. You're waiting for the human intelligence exploitation team to arrive so they can question him. There are two on the team. One is white, the other Arab. This is what I have seen them do to other men. The White man spoke softly and Arabic. He made eye contact. He offered tea and bread and the Arab man shouted Arabic. He rolled up newspapers and slapped the men across their faces. Sometimes he used his hands. The white man never stopped his soft speaking. In the room while we wait for the human intelligence exploitation team, the guilty man attempts to remove the weight from his knees to settle on his heels. One of us jams a gun muzzle into his spine and moves him back to a high kneel. Behind his blindfold. The man whimpers says, Meesta, please Meesta. We learned the kneeling tactic from John third platoon who is Vietnamese, and whose father forced him to kneel on grains of rice as punishment when he was young, because that is what fathers do.
Matt Young: 19:28 Into the room, walks our interpreter, whom we call Rambo because he asks us to and because he carries a large cerrated survival knife. Rambo's skin is the color of whipped chocolate. Muscle striations flex beneath the thin flesh of his jaw which comes to a pointed chin clad in a soul patch. He paces around the man, boxes the man's ears. Then kneels next to the man and pulls out his knife. Rambo is not part of the human intelligence exploitation team for whom we are still waiting. Waiting is most of what we do. Our circle shrinks as circles do when something bad is about to happen. Rambo presses the knife blade to the man's cheek and the man speaks Arabic. Rambo presses the knife blade into the palm of the man's right hand, which we flexi cuffed behind his back after we tested it for gunpowder residue. He cuts slowly and the man screams because that is what men being cut do. You don't let Rambo take a finger but that is what he wants to do. Hours later, the human intelligence exploitation team arrives and they speak with the guilty man for five minutes and the man is found innocent.
Matt Young: 20:42 We drive him back to his home because that is what we are ordered to do. Outside the truck we snip the Flexi cuffs and remove the man's blindfold and tell him in a language he cannot understand we'll see him next time; and then years later in trying to fall asleep, we tell ourselves we did what we had to do.
Justin Hudnall: 21:21 We're back with my guest, Matt Young, who's debut novel Eat The Apple tells the story of his lost 18 year old self enlisting in the marine corps, the cult of toxic masculinity and the divide his service placed between himself and his loved ones. So would you say with deploying into a war zone with fear is such a shaping factor and then do you think that made you a better marine or a better person, or was it kind of like you were living a lie in your head, how you felt about it?
Matt Young: 21:50 I always kind of feel like in my life that I'm doing like this fake it until I make it kind of thing.
Justin Hudnall: 21:50 Touche; I don't know who doesn't.
Matt Young: 21:57 Does anybody else feel like I feel? I mean I definitely feel like that it made me a better marine and respect that like I put on this front and so I needed to deliver on that front and so like I had this huge fear of failing and then being exposed as kind of a, kind of a fraud or something like that. So the fake it until you make it mentality really ended up working for me in that situation because I'd be presented with another thing to do. I would just do it. I guess this is going to be it. I guess I'm going to be exposed as a fraud idiot right now and it happened a couple of times I think. And there are things that I still think about that I still have a lot of shame about. When I tell those stories to people will have what they are. They're like, why do you even think about that? Still? Like why is that still a thing you think about?
Justin Hudnall: 22:35 What is the exact nature of the things that really stick with you after all these years in terms of, you know, regret and burrowing into your subconscious for the 2:00 AM thoughts?
Matt Young: 22:44 Oh yeah. I think like a lot of it is letting down my senior marines, forgetting to secure some concertina wire to the hood of a Humvee, like will wake me up at 2:00 in the morning and I won't be able to go to sleep. There's like some weird shame attached to that thing and I have a, a training scenario where we were at a combat town and I and I got to somehow stuck in a hallway, it's like this big production that gets put on by Stu Segal studios in San Diego. I used paint rounds. They hire people that have prosthetic legs and they blow off their prosthetic legs and they have a bunch of actors that dress up, but all the actors are like former special forces guys like running around shooting you, making you look like you're a child. And that happened and we got kind of pinned down in this hallway and I had no idea what to do.
Matt Young: 23:28 I was just like, totally lost. The roof of the place is kind of exposed, the rafters are exposed so all your commanders and like my, my lieutenant and my sergeants were up above me looking at me, observing me and looking at how I would react to that situation. And I did not react well. I just like sat for 10 minutes and like radioed into my lieutenant who was, you know, 15 feet above my head telling him we need QRF. And he kept refusing it of course because he wants to see what I'm going to do and it's just one of those things that I replay and quarterback over and over again in my head and I want to go back and change it, but I can't. And it's something that's so small and insignificant. It's like one little training event which I should have just taken as this thing of like a learning experience and been like, all right. Yeah, I sucked up there but I can get better. Let's do it again. instead. Like I totally didn't take the criticism, let my attitude get really horrible about the entire situation and put on another front, which I think is kind of like my modus operandi.
Justin Hudnall: 24:24 That's interesting. That's interesting though because even though it is war gaming, I mean you're illustrating the situation that if those rounds weren't paint would have ended in you being gunned down and you know, your marines being gunned down and I think, you know, it's not exactly like summer practice for.
Matt Young: 24:42 Yeah, but it. But it should be thought about that- I think people who play professional sports think about every single practice they do is like make or break kind of thing and I don't know, maybe you should approach training like that in the military is kind of make or break.
Matt Young: 24:54 But I think that it maybe would have helped me to, to not have so much stress placed on me at that situation or you know, giving people room to fail, which is a great thing that I love about academia and love about school is that you can give students that, that space to fail. And I don't, I don't think that was ever really afforded to you in the military at all. If you fail, then there was like, all right, we'll find somebody else who can do the job.
Justin Hudnall: 25:19 Let's step aside for a moment to hear another of matt's stories, Trajectory, that he performed live for us at the So Say We All reading series at public square in 2017.
Matt Young: 25:29 I haven't. I haven't read this one aloud yet, so we'll see how it goes. I really feel like I brought the mood down with that last one. Can we like take a moment. Somebody know a funny joke? Funny Joke? Jokesters? anybody? No, I've killed the room. ****. [laughter] There we go. That works. "Trajectory."
Matt Young: 25:57 In early 2009, I'm tasked to hold security on an Iraqi man sedated on a hospital bed. I've just left, left him, replaced by the next guard. The man was shot in the left calf, but the bullet exited close to his abdomen. I'm amazed by this. The elephantine swelling caused by the wound fascinates me. to relieve pressure The doctors cut the man's skin to the muscle. They don't really explain to me why they had to do it this way, but it leaves the inner workings of the man set straight.
Matt Young: 26:24 Sinew exposed, pink and glossy and hard to look at, but impossible not to. Sometimes the nurse, lets me flush the loose and loosely redress the wound. Sometimes I press just a bit too hard or am careless about where my fingers may contact. There's a part of me that wants to see the man suffer. I had been told he was shot because he was also shooting. But his bullets didn't strike true. Bullets are tricky. They don't travel in straight lines. Movies make them out to but bullets move in parabolic freefall. They begin to tumble, asteroids in space toward their point of impact, to do whatever damage they will do. Small caliber bullets like a five, five, six millimeter round from an M16 or M4 are not made to travel through bodies and leave an exit wound. rounds fired from an M16-A4 service rifle, travel at 3000, 100, 10 feet per second, and even at close range of five point five, six might not make it all the way through a person.
Matt Young: 27:23 The bullet will start to tumble through the viscera and fracture bones and make secondary fragmentation within the target's body and it might enter the chest or abdomen or the face, but it might end up exiting through the kneecap or the elbow or buttock. Both holes might be small, but internally it will look like someone eggbeatered the Organs. A human can't act on a bullet. Once the bullet has entered the human, there's too much velocity, too much power. Most Times the human doesn't even know the bullet has entered them until it has exited or become lodge somewhere against some dense bone or then thick tissue. I've acted like a bullet. I've entered lives and bounced and ricocheted and broken and torn, and now I'm going to exit one life and that life will have no say. Unlike the bullet, I'm exiting by choice, not because of ballistics.
Matt Young: 28:13 I'm exiting because I have lied and cheated and now that I'm sober, I realize those things are not foundational to lifelong bonds of marriage. I will exit 10,000 clicks away via international phone line because I'm a coward. Because I have the courage -- because I didn't have the courage to tell the truth to her face two months before with the Pacific coast of California as my backdrop. In that moment, I was still somehow tricking both of us that I loved her. I expect the conversation will be long and I'm thinking of the collateral damage of my exit. There are four weapons safety rules marines learned in basic training. One, treat every woman- weapon- as if it were loaded. two, never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot. Three, keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you're ready to fire. Four, keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire.
Matt Young: 29:03 There was also an unspoken fifth among grunts. Know your target and what lies beyond. I'm thinking about what I might hit upon my exit after these four years. How many relationships I'm changing the course of, how many people won't have control of the fallout, just like the person in the next room can't control the bullet. Exiting the first body, traveling through drywall or Stucco and striking them. I'm in an AT&T phone trailer. The trailer is empty for which I'm grateful. I use a calling card to phone.
Matt Young: 29:37 Hello? -Hey, it's me. -Hi, How are you doing? What time is it there, early? -Listen, I think we should talk. Silence. -I just don't think this is working. I feel like I'm wasting your time. I'm not a good person. -You don't mean that, What's going on? -Nothing. This isn't working. It's over. I'm sorry.
Matt Young: 29:55 Phone clicks. That's it. That's it. She was crying. How can that be it? No screaming. No **** you. Clean, surgical. Back in the aid station The Iraqi man is gone, well enough to travel. He was taken by the men who shot him to be interrogated at some other base somewhere else. Maybe he'll be imprisoned. Maybe he'll be set free. I knew nothing about him, only that he was reported to have fired a weapon at soldiers and I was to guard him and that because of him, my sleep is interrupted so I hate him. The Bed is spotless, sheets bright and starched and empty, and I start to feel like my bones are collapsing from the inside out. Like maybe I'm being eviscerated and I start to cry. I want to apologize to the man I'm going to tell him I'm sorry for how I treated him for not protecting him when that was the job I had been assigned to, but the man is gone and all that's left is an exit wound.
Matt Young: 29:55 [audience applauds] Thank you.
Justin Hudnall: 31:05 Well, let's talk about: You did get experience firsthand with combat and with getting blown up and all of the bells and whistles of live action. What changed in you and how did that attitude towards yourself change over those years?
Matt Young: 31:24 You go in to the military like you go into anything else in life. When you're starting out new and fresh and you're bright eyed and bushy tailed and you have a lot of motivation to do the thing and prove yourself and be good at your job. I mean the constant deploying, the two deployments, first of all, that weren't volunteer basis for me. I volunteered for my third deployment, which plays into my attitude adjustment actually. But, uh, I, when I got to the fleet, my seniors had already deployed twice, you know, either in the push to Baghdad or to the battle of Fallujah, second battle of Fallujah in 2004. And they had gotten back from that deployment that day that I shipped out to bootcamp. They were just tired and they had lost a lot of friends between 2003 in 2004 and they were feeling a little bit under appreciated, I think.
Matt Young: 32:09 That's around the time that people were starting to feel the lag, you know, it was like presurge years and people were kind of like we had said mission complete and then the mission wasn't complete. Everybody was just kind of either trying to ignore it or was upset about it. They were kind of feeling that the brunt of that translated into hazing us, making us run or making us push or making us do all this stuff that they didn't want to do, treating us not like we thought we deserved to be treated or like what everybody else was telling us. We were going be treated like where they were like, Oh yeah, you're marines, you're going to get there. You're gonna, they're gonna treat you as Marines because you've earned that title, and that is not the case. You know, you got to, once you get to the fleet, you've got to earn your spot.
Matt Young: 32:50 You got to prove that people can depend on you and that you have the ability to, to do the job that you've been given. We hadn't proved that yet and even if we proved that in training, we hadn't proved it in combat to them and they were all- They were all combat tested marines and that's a tough thing to walk into. That attitude that they hadn't had this like, you know, this untouchable air about them. That was something that became what you wanted and so I very much wanted that, you know, I looked up to those guys and really respected them and wanted to be like them. That doesn't necessarily mean that they were, you know, you look at a recruiting poster and see a picture of a marine with a high and tight in his dress blues. That was not those guys, you know, these, they had low haircuts and you know, didn't blast their boots.
Matt Young: 33:31 Everybody else would have called them ****bag, but they were gods to me and so I want it to be like them. And so my attitude ended up reflecting there's, which was not good and so I hit this valley at the end of my first deployment and I think I was tired after that to eight months of stress and getting blown up and, and like going out and expecting IUDs day after day after day after day. It tires you out, uh, not really seeing any kind of progress at all, too, is also very tiresome. You know, when you're a PFC or lance corporal, it's hard to see the big picture. It's hard to see progress because you don't know it and I still don't still don't know it, so I think that's a lot of what I'm trying to figure out now in my own writing, but I kind of stayed in that valley of having a- having a bad attitude for the next two deployments.
Matt Young: 34:17 When we got back from my second deployment, which was supposed to be a deployment to Okinawa, which changed very quickly when we got a new battalion commander who hadn't been to Iraq yet and wanted to go to Iraq, so six months into our workup to Okinawa, they. They changed it and we ended up going back to Fallujah to the same exact roads, to the same exact fobs, to the same exact camps that we were on and that was super disheartening and really disappointing. That also helped me become the surly crusty marine that I was. We got back and I had about, I think I had about eight months left, which is not enough time for a workup in a deployment. They fapped us out. They did the fleet- They gave us like a fleet assistance program, but it was for camp maintenance and so they had made us paint curbs and do weed whacking and lawnmowing in like police calling parking lots.
Matt Young: 35:07 As somebody who was a corporal who had a squad, was respected at one point in time, I was suddenly like this person who was like doing lawn care and I didn't know how to cope with it.
Justin Hudnall: 35:18 Did they make you rake the sand?
Matt Young: 35:19 Oh my gosh. Yeah, there was raking of sand. There was like literally painting rocks, Gold and red. Like that was part of our daily job. There was an announcement that they wanted volunteers to go personal security detail for Colonel Molay at the time, which for Regimental Combat Team Five, that was in el assad. Me and a couple other guys said, screw lawn care lawn, let's go back to Iraq. And so, you know, you're really in a, in a dark place when Iraq sounds better than the thing they have you doing in the states. Um, that last deployment was really interesting to me.
Matt Young: 35:52 I mean, that was really the thing that shaped who I was or who I was going to be when I got out. Before I went to that deployment, I was doing a lot of drinking. I was drinking heavily. A lot of people in the military do, but it was something akin to like trying to die. A case of beer a night, opening a gallon of Jack Daniels around a fire and passing it around with three guys until it was gone and then getting in a car and driving someplace, you know, it was like just waiting for something to happen or hoping something was going to happen. Going on that deployment dried me out. I didn't drink. I got sober and I met some really interesting people. Put My life into perspective and put my future in perspective, which was something I hadn't thought about it because it was something that I thought wasn't going to happen because I thought I was going to die.
Matt Young: 36:28 Three deployments to Iraq. You don't really think about what your future is going to be because you just kind of assume that you're not going to make it. So.
Justin Hudnall: 36:37 What was it about that deployment, other than the fact that you can't drink in country that, that affected you specifically?
Matt Young: 36:45 Weirdly enough, I, uh, so I did a cycle of steroids when I was in country on my third deployment, which we ordered from like a Japanese website, my corpsman, who I will call Big Wave Dave helped us administer them. I'm not advocating like steroid use--
Justin Hudnall: 36:45 [laughs] Incoming does not condone the use of intravenous steroids--
Matt Young: 37:06 --but somebody had always, always told me that it was gonna, you know, you're going to get roid rage, you're going to get angry. It's going to make you, you're going to get so mad at everything. And I was like, ah, whatever.
Matt Young: 37:14 I'm already angry. It's not, whatever, I don't care. And so I took the steroids but it like gave me a goal, I think. I wanted to get in shape. I was drinking beer for six months totally out of shape and somehow like it gave me a goal to achieve, like it gave me something to wake up in the morning for. It was like, all right, wake up in the morning, go to the gym, go to the Chow Hall, going to run, go do the mission for the day. Repeat. how it's a total fobbit. My third deployment, except for like three weeks when we were out on the Syrian border, which was great, but like having a regimented lifestyle which was like, wake up, do the thing, you've completed the thing and now you get to feel like you've done a thing for the day. That really helped me and being around different people who had like this different thought process. Big Wave Dave was a weird guy, he smoked a lot of pot, was into like new age medicine and stuff like that. There's a chapter in the book about big wave Dave. Actually a couple of him because he's such an interesting, strange part of that experience for me.
Justin Hudnall: 38:07 Next, we're gonna hear Matt Young's studio session right here at kpbs in San Diego, where he recorded his story, "How to feel ashamed for things you never did."
Matt Young: 38:19 In August of 2006, when I returned from my first deployment to Iraq, my family is waiting at Camp San Mateo. My company rolls in on charter buses from March Air Force base in the evening. We exit the buses to a parade deck full of screaming families. Some of my salts who got out before, during the deployment are outside the armory throwing beers over the fence. As marines turned in rifles and heavy weapons systems, the camp guard gives up. I find my family wandering the basketball court at the center of the barracks calling my name, grandparents, aunt, fiance. I want so badly to be happy when I see them. My family has rooms at a hotel in San Clemente, California,
Matt Young: 39:02 just outside of Camp Pendleton. I have leave for 96 hours, four days. The thought of four days with them, quickens my heart and sweat slicks my palms. In the car I place my hand to the smooth, cool flesh of my fiance's thigh and the muscle tightens beneath her skin for a lightning strike of seconds. From the front seat my grandfather talks about the drive from Mount Shasta to Camp Pendleton. He talks about the grape vine and great distances and how no one else makes his milk as the way he likes them aside from the chippy at the coffee hut back home. I listen, stare at the city lights and marvel at the lack of tangled wires at the people walking around after 10 at night. at the smiles, at the clean roads. In the hotel room, I drink beer and liquor and smoke cigarettes. I'm quiet at first. The flight from Iraq to Kuwait to California Shocked my system. My synapses are out of whack. I cracked another beer. I've lost count now. I've had a drink or two in the last eight months. A swig of contraband whiskey here or there. This is something else altogether. Because of the drink I'm tossing down my gullet, later I won't remember how I began talking about the deployment. I tell my family stories about Keen hitting himself and trying to talk after our Humvee was blown sky high, by a culvert bomb. about our interpreter Rambo, trying to cut a detainees finger off. about Charlie falling down a dune during lieutenant mandated forced trash pickup, while taking sniper fire. about detaining a 12 year old boy during a raid and getting chewed out by the Jag. about being ambushed in the back of a Humvee and laughing while bullets pinged around us.
Matt Young: 40:47 In the silent spaces between stories, my family filters from the room excusing themselves to sleep until it's only my aunt, my fiance and me. The silences hang between us. I sipped my beer and move my eyes over the room, skipping the women's faces, which to me look drenched in the sheen of expectation. What I haven't realized in that moment, What I'll come to understand later, is that my aunt and my fiance are not expecting anything. Instead, they're pleading, begging and screaming for me to shut up. To not crack another beer. To sleep. If I could erase the drunk from my brain, I'd notice the facial torsion, widened eyes, crimped mouths, but instead the warped faces looked to me confused and questioning. I think they're wondering where the real story is. I think they're waiting for an answer as to why I've come home this way. Nervous and quiet and dispassionate.
Matt Young: 41:37 So I tell a lie. I tell them about a made-up village and a fantasy house within the village and imagined insurgents within the fantasy house and fictional grenades and bullets used to kill those embedded insurgents, defending the fantasy house. I tried thinking of realistic films, secondhand stories from my salts. books I've read. anything to tell convincing details of bullet holes and blood spatter and viscera. This feels to me like an explanation of individual experience. This black and white and fallible story of good versus evil story where I don't feel as though I have to explain my actions, a story where I get to feel like a hero.
Matt Young: 42:29 In the morning My head aches and alcohol sweat coats my skin like wax. There's a tough meaty sick feeling in the ethereal place beyond my stomach, between soul and body floating around inside a shattered figurative pelvic bone where I birthed my lie to the world. In the car on the way to breakfast no one makes eye contact with me or maybe I cannot make eye contact with them. Maybe I'm imagining all that. I wonder what I said verbatim. I wonder if I fabricated anything other than my perfect story. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. I think maybe I should ask what I talked about. I wonder if my family would recount the story I told. Will they remember?, I think. Maybe they'll forget about it I think. they probably don't remember it I think. I should tell the truth and apologize, I think. I'll just say sorry for last night I think. I think they'll understand. They are my family. Of course they will understand. I open my mouth to speak. My grandfather pulls out of the hotel parking lot into the path of a passenger bus and I have a very real, not fictitious anxiety attack. The car shrinks, my ears buzz, my skin prickles, suspicious roadside trash puckers my sphincter, my fingernails sheath into my palms, at the sight of a woman in Hijab. My aunt must notice my reactions because she eyeballs me and tries to make a joke about my grandfather's driving. I cannot manage a laugh. At the restaurant My family eats and begins to talk. Family News and gossip, jobs. My fiance chats about college. Maybe we never stopped talking in the first place. I stuff my mouth with Huevos rancheros and let sticky ocean brine into my nostrils for my first full breath in eight months, but the lie remains. becomes a scratch in the roof of my mouth that I can't stop tounging, passively, nagging and pulling, closing and reopening. Always there. later, I'll fashion the lie into a story to tell friends, acquaintances, other veterans.
Matt Young: 44:33 After a time I'll be ashamed not to tell the story and that thick sick feeling in the place beyond my guts in the ether from where the story emerged will become a dull throb. A bit of pressure next to my spine or behind my eyes or inside my rib cage, but it won't disappear. It won't ever disappear.
Justin Hudnall: 45:05 Welcome back to incoming. We're talking today with Marine Corps veteran Matt Young, whose debut novel eat the apple was released by Bloomsbury publishing in February of 2018. What was your coming home story like and how did writing factor into your transition into civilian life?
Matt Young: 45:20 I never really thought about what I wanted my future to be, but um, that, that changed a lot in my third deployment and it definitely- my, my future wife definitely helped a lot with that too, you know, she was, she was getting her master's degree and I was getting out of the Marine Corps and I had no idea what I wanted to do. And so I moved back to Indiana for the summer and while she kind of applied to Grad schools and got in at Oregon State, I went home and kind of fell into the same habits that I had before I left for the Marine Corps. When you go back home, it's like pressing play because you know, that's kind of what happens and- It's exactly what happened to me. I went home, I got drunk and I got a DUI and I went on probation. It was. I was hanging out with the same people I was hanging out with before I left and doing the same stupid **** that I was doing before I left and so I had to get out. Jenna who was my future wife, kind of provided that out for me. She was in Oregon and that was a place that I wanted to go visit because I had friends there from the military and I wanted to go see it anyway, and so I applied to Oregon state. I haven't really haven't looked back at Indiana since.
Justin Hudnall: 46:22 You've been in the veteran literary community for a while now. What do you see now that you feel like is missing from that conversation and what stories do you feel like are the ones we need to be reading?
Matt Young: 46:31 I mean, I'm always missing enlisted voices from those stories. A lot of female voices, voices that aren't infantry, you don't really get a lot of those things. More stories from kind of like the fringe of the military would be awesome. I would love to hear stories from the enlisted ranks of those fringes because I just don't think that you hear them very much there. You know, people seem to want to hear like that. Like the classic combat narrative, which I also, you know, think mainstream media is kind of looking for any way. Like they're looking for a way to turn this super gray, muddy conflict into something that is black and white. And especially since it's been over for five years, people are looking for and people still don't feel good about it. They're looking for a way to feel good about it. Getting away from that narrative, getting like and just kind of accepting that and like maybe it's something that we can't feel good about and that we're not going to feel good about. Um, I think that would be more narratives like that. I think those are the things that I want to read, um, as warm and fuzzy as that sounds.
Justin Hudnall: 47:33 You're very intentional about writing about parts of the military service that are not flattering to the soldiers who participated in them, uh, or the mission behind it, you know, zip tying kids and snatch and grabs, grabbing the wrong guys. How important do you feel like it is for civilians to hear that side of it and how does that impact your relationship with this tendency of blanketly labeling all veterans heroes?
Matt Young: 47:57 That's a pretty dangerous practice I think mostly because it shuts down that conversation really quickly. Once you call somebody a hero, you can't really debate the things that they've done and that's hard to have a, you know, to have a genuine real conversation about things when people aren't willing or, or, or don't want to look at something critically because of what they perceive as sacrifice. But we know we're not in a, a drafted military anymore. It's a volunteer military. And so I think that like you've got to be comfortable with, with the idea that you are going to be criticized because it's just like any other job and I do acknowledge that there are certain aspects of the job that somebody who's an actuary might not face on a day to day basis, but you've chosen that thing. It's not like somebody's chosen it for you, and so I think that that opens you up to criticism and it should open you up to criticism. It's not like you've been snatched from your bed in the middle of the night and then thrown into the military or something like that, and then expected to do a job that you didn't want to do in the first place.
Justin Hudnall: 48:57 We're going to step out of the interview for a moment to hear another story from Matt's debut memoir, Eat The apple, that he performed for us at So Say We All's reading series in 2017. This one called "Clean."
Matt Young: 49:11 "Clean." On our way out of Iraq in 2008. After our second pump to the desert, we are delayed by a week of Shamal winds and sandstorms that tent our world to rust. There is no difference between sand and air. Running Water becomes pointless. when we wake in the mornings, Our eyes are crusted shut by saline and dust, the muck cakes to the corners of our mouths, stains the exposed creases of our faces, aging us like bad stage makeup. sand grinds down our molars and incisors and sends tinges of nerve pain through our feelings and we wash it down our gullets with sludge water into our intestines where it's absorbed and sweated back out of our pores. We don't know it yet, but years later in the dead of night we will not be able to sleep because sleep won't come easy after the war when we're trying to make sense of it all.
Matt Young: 49:57 Trying to figure out why we went to war in the first place. We'll sneak downstairs to our basements and pull down attic doors and wince at the creaking echo of wood and metal. We'll tiptoe to our garages or sheds or forgotten closets and sift through boxes of Christmas and Halloween decorations until we find a pilfered olive drab ruck or decaying cardboard box or thick plastic foot locker. We'll run our hands over its surface. Goose flesh rising on our arms. Inside we'll find that dust and crumpled Cbags and in the pockets of old utilities in creases of stolen gear. It will stink of eons, a stale flat stink that will leave our mouths dry and our throats looking like the parched hard pan on which we used to piss. Finding the sand is like stumbling upon old nude photos of an ex and as our groins stir to life, we'll look over our guilty shoulders for our wives and girlfriends and partners; we'll rub the grip between our forefingers and thumbs, the grains echoing like artillery against the deltas and islands of our fingerprints.
Matt Young: 50:58 Our Hearts will race and we'll stand inside our warm domestic houses. Remembering the thing we used to be in the desert and we'll know we will never be able to leave the thing or the desert behind. Long hairs on our scalps will trap the grime and will powder our lashes and stick to our nose hairs. It will seep over us like a spilled shadow curling around us like a cat's tail. We'll pack the trinkets up and we'll sneak to our bathrooms to shower and remove any evidence of our indiscretion. Our wives and partners still dozing. The dust will leach red and thick from our bodies and spread to the chlorinated water collecting on our toes like blood trails from a shark bite. Some of us will shave our heads right there in the bathroom thinking that dust is an infestation like lice, thinking maybe we can get at it without our structured obstructing forest of hair. We'll scrub and scrub and grate and rake and we'll slough off dead dogs and detained children and widowed women. They'll collect around our soaking legs and we'll beg their lifeless and horrified eyes for forgiveness, but they'll already be circling the drain. Out of the Tub, skin steaming, noses full of Potpourri and feminine Soaps, we'll stand in front of the fogged mirror, Suck in slack hairy paunches. Slap our lobster flesh. And remember when we could bench press more than our own weight and run three miles in 18 minutes.
Matt Young: 52:23 [audience laughs] It's true... We'll remember the times we overpowered one another in the dirt after flak jacket runs and how we firemen-carried the weak during battalion hikes through sun-baked hills. We'll think of the boy in basic training who pissed his trousers and the stench of barracks room was full of molded low pile carpet and pledge surface cleaner and the hairdryer feeling of being in a Humvee turret behind an Abrams. Our faces will flush at the thought of our own disappointments, our own missed chances our ignorance, our cruelty, and we'll slide back into bed under our 600 thread count sheets and our floral print duvets next to whomever and stare at the ceiling, hoping and praying that none of the dust remains, but also hoping we missed some crevice, some fold of skin thinking that maybe if we wash it all away, we might finally be able to get a decent ***damn night of sleep, but afraid that if and when we do rid ourselves of the chaff, that we might disappear ourselves. Be washed down the drain, our skin sinew and bones sliding into the blackness.
Matt Young: 53:23 [audience applauds] You don't have to clap. Don't clap. I feel a little bit like Jeb. "Please clap." I've been waiting for a chance since like early 2016 to say that.
Justin Hudnall: 53:46 If you were to meet somebody in the service today who was about to rotate out in a year or less and you could give them one piece of advice about their transition to civilian life, what would it be?
Matt Young: 53:58 I still don't have an answer to that.
Justin Hudnall: 53:59 It's all right. We can skip it.
Matt Young: 54:01 No, no. I, uh, I mean if you're, if you want to talk about like somebody who wants to get out and write about their experience or write about, or be a writer- I think that like my, my suggestion to them would be to read other people, to read other experiences and not just to read war lit and not just to, you know, and, kind of engulf yourself in that world and realm because those stories are going to end up feeling like they're your, they're your stories and it's going to feel like you don't have a story to tell. And I would also say that if you are going to write about your experience, don't expect it to be therapeutic. Expect it to be retraumatizing and expect it to be hard.
Matt Young: 54:43 I think a lot of people said when I got out, you should write about your experience, it will really help you therapeutically. It'll really help you get through this tough time. And when I tried to do it, it didn't help me, it, you know, it made it, it made it worse in the three years that it took writing the book was every time that I would go and get in that headspace it was, it was hard and it put me back to, to, you know, those 2:00 AM wake ups feeling ashamed for ridiculous stuff, more quarterbacking things that I had done. Thinking about people who had died, people who had died unnecessarily. You know, that stuff's not therapeutic. It's traumatic and it's definitely retraumatizing. So I would say be aware of that.
Justin Hudnall: 55:21 When you sat down to start writing in earnest as a civilian, how much did you struggle figuring out what you needed to write about versus what you felt the expectation on you to write about?
Matt Young: 55:32 Oh, so much. I think like, you know, my first attempts at writing they were so like, I can't even read them now. They're so bad, you know, it's like I didn't have the depth, first of all, to be reflective about my experience. The thing that I wanted when I made up that story about those insurgents and killing them, it's very black and white narrative. That's what I wanted. My own story very much wasn't that thing. It was confusing and hard and sad and hilarious at times. All these things kind of existing together and that became really difficult to try and parse those things out to figure out a voice that could tell that story and when I first started those things, it was not that. I wanted it to be: These are the people that are doing good things and there are definitely bad people in the world and that's just not how the world works in any way, shape or form. It was hard to find that voice.
Justin Hudnall: 56:19 Matt Young, thanks so much for being on incoming. I really Appreciate you talking to us and I look forward to reading your book.
Matt Young: 56:22 Yeah, thank you Justin. I Appreciate the chance to be on here with you too.
Justin Hudnall: 56:25 That's our show. You can get even more of Matt young and learn how to buy his debut novel Eat The apple at www.matt youngauthor.Com. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall, Jennifer Corley is our editor and sound designer at So Say We All. At kpbs our radio production manager and mentor is Mr Kirk Kohnen. Nate John is our millennial innovation specialist. Emily Jankowski is our technical director and John Decker is program director. all of the original tunes in this episode were created for us by AM/FM music and you can find them online at The music on the story, how to feel ashamed for things you've never did, is by Aalfang mit Pferdekopf and the music used on equal and opposite is by Haunted Me. Incoming is made possible through the support of the California Arts Council veteran's initiative in the arts, the KPBS explore program, and supporting members of So Say We All. you can find us at, and if you want to get in touch, email us at Thanks for listening. We'll talk again soon.