The Cavalry at Home: A soldier’s wounds and a will to live
Spc. David Matakaiongo's son Zion, right, holds his father's hand during a visit at Madigan Army Medical Center, November 2013, in Tacoma, Wash. Matakaiongo, who uses pain killing morphine, Oxycontin and Percocet, talked with doctors about a surgical procedure that could lessen his chronic pain.
TACOMA, Wash. — More than a year back from war, Spc. David Matakaiongo can’t shed the feeling that he’s still in Afghanistan.
He plays with his toddler son at home on Joint Base Lewis-McChord and remembers the Afghan girl whose body fell apart in his arms as he lifted her right after a bomb struck her.
The once gregarious islander from Tonga now prefers to stay inside the smallest room of his house, the better to protect his wife and child.
He walks with a cane inscribed with the names of the four young soldiers who died next to him on the night traitors in the Afghan police attacked them. The four are never far from his thoughts.
“I always consider myself the lucky guy, the one that came back home,” he said.
On Sept. 16, 2012, Matakaiongo survived the single deadliest attack against Lewis-McChord soldiers in the past four years. He was serving under the flag of the 1st Squadron, 14th Regiment, a Stryker unit nearing the end of its fourth combat deployment since 2003.
Today, a metal rod supports his leg where his right femur used to be. He walks with a limp. His limbs and torso are purpled with scars from Taliban bullets.
He lives with post-traumatic stress that causes him to withdraw from public places. He endures constant pain that requires around-the-clock medication.
For Matakaiongo, coming home from a deadly betrayal was just the beginning of his battle to heal.
“I have to appreciate the fact that I made it,” the 27-year-old veteran said. “The guys that died, I always think, ‘Man if they were the one that came back, they’re probably going to do a better job than me. So what is my excuse, being out here, being alive and stuff, and not willing to push myself?’ ”
Matakaiongo said two prayers after the Afghan police officers he thought were his allies turned their AK-47 rifles on him and five other soldiers in a desolate corner of Zabul province.
One prayer was for him.
“If there’s a place for me in heaven, please save it for me.”
One was for wife Laverna and baby son Zion, whom he thought he’d never see again.
“Please take care of my family.”
He looked around and saw a horrible sight.
Four of his fellow soldiers lay dead or dying in the mountaintop dugout in southeast Afghanistan where they’d been watching for enemy movements. One fellow survivor, who was alive because he played dead, frantically called in a report on the radio.
The fallen included Pfc. Jon Townsend, one of Matakaiongo’s closest friends in uniform. They’d bonded over their Christian faith and shared stories about their families back home.
The shooters also killed Sgt. Sapuro Nena, a respected cavalry scout who, like Matakaiongo, hailed from the South Pacific; Pfc. Genaro Bedoy, who had gone home to Texas for his daughter’s birth two months before his death; and Spc. Joshua Nelson, a communications specialist with a wife back home in North Carolina.
At 1 a.m., six Afghan police mounted the sandbags that surrounded their dugout and sprayed it with bullets.
It was over in less than 15 seconds. The killers melted into the darkness, pausing only to execute a seventh Afghan police officer who did not join in the slaughter, according to a declassified Army investigation.
Matakaiongo took three shots to his right thigh, one to his left leg, one to his ribs and another to his left arm.
“I’m going to die,” he thought to himself.
The shots awoke a team of Lewis-McChord soldiers sleeping about a quarter-mile away at another outpost. They moved slowly to the scene, walking carefully in the dark to stay concealed from the shooters they couldn’t see but suspected were still nearby.
Matakaiongo’s last surviving partner, Spc. Devin Wallace, collected himself in the bloody pit. He wrapped tourniquets on both of Matakaiongo’s legs to buy time for the wounded soldier.
Three years earlier, back in Tonga, David Matakaiongo had been at a personal crossroads.
He’d earned a degree in theology from a Christian college in Papua New Guinea and returned home to Tonga where he thought he’d take up counseling. It was a slow-paced life in which he enjoyed good friends and competitive sports, such as rugby.
In school, he met the woman he knew he wanted to marry. They clicked when he visited Laverna’s hometown in Australia on his college breaks. They were drawn to each other’s warm personalities.
“If you put him in a room with his family, he’s the one making everyone laugh,” Laverna said. “In my family, I’m that person, too.”
But Matakaiongo didn’t see a life for them in the islands. He went to Los Angeles, following an older brother who had served in the U.S. Navy. Matakaiongo took his brother’s advice and joined the military to learn how to live in the country he wanted to call home.
“This is a good way to find a life,” Matakaiongo remembered thinking. “Start with the military. You find discipline and you build a life.”
He enlisted in 2011 and was on his way to Afghanistan with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division by the end of the year.
Matakaiongo became a dad on the eve of his deployment. Back home in Sydney, Laverna gave birth to Zion in October 2011. She stayed there and waited for David’s return from Afghanistan to start their life together in the states.
They saw each other once more, in the spring of 2012, during Matakaiongo’s midtour leave. He loved spending time with Laverna, Zion and their relatives in Tonga, but he felt out of place.
Matakaiongo wondered if he was seeing his loved ones for the last time.
He had witnessed deadly explosions that wounded friends and killed civilians.
He understood the growing dangers of Afghan soldiers and police shooting their American partners. More than 50 Western service members died in such attacks in 2012, the year of Matakaiongo’s deployment.
One of the year’s first insider killings took place a month after Matakaiongo hit the ground in Zabul province. On Jan. 8, 2012, an Afghan shot and killed Pfc. Dustin Napier, an Alaska-based soldier. Napier died at the same forward base that would become the headquarters for Matakaiongo’s cavalry squadron from Lewis-McChord.
“We knew what they were capable of,” Matakaiongo said.
In September, his commander sent him to a combat outpost in Zabul called Mizan, which the Army wanted to hand over to Afghan forces.
Enemy fighters started shelling the position with mortars 10 to 12 times a night, anticipating the withdrawal of American forces. It was a small outpost, so the shells represented a serious threat to the few dozen soldiers stationed there.
Matakaiongo and five others were picked for a 48-hour assignment watching the terrain that commanders suspected insurgents used to launch their mortars. They hiked up to the observation point on a peak a couple of miles from the Mizan outpost.
Matakaiongo didn’t like the looks he was getting from the Afghan police who joined them at the lookout.
“I’m looking at these guys and thinking, ‘You’re going to shoot me,’ ” he said.
On the night of the attack, Sgt. Amber Gilbert awoke to the sound of gunfire. Using a radio, another soldier called to Nena, who was the senior scout assigned to the observation point where the shootings took place.
At least five minutes passed before they heard a report from the lookout. “We need a medevac.”
Gilbert and four others arrived 15 minutes later to find Nena shot six times in the back, Bedoy with a mortal wound to his face, Nelson shot several times in each thigh and Townsend bleeding from his upper left chest.
Matakaiongo, at least, could talk.
“Who did this?” Gilbert asked.
“The ANP,” he replied, referring to the Afghan National Police.
Of the seriously wounded, only Matakaiongo survived.
“Kong is a lucky, strong soldier,” Gilbert said in a recent interview.
She recalled the agonizingly slow effort to save his life. The ground was too steep for a helicopter landing, and Matakaiongo had to be moved to a flatter location.
They hauled him down a craggy slope under a sky lit by the flarelike illumination rounds fired from their outpost a mile or so away. One of the rounds struck a soldier on the recovery team.
A Blackhawk helicopter dispatched to pick up Matakaiongo turned back because of bad weather.
The minutes kept ticking away. Gilbert stayed by Matakaiongo’s side.
She tied new tourniquets to his wounds. She waited.
The official Army investigation into the attack says Matakaiongo was on his way off the battlefield within an hour of the shooting. Gilbert and Matakaiongo remember three hours passing before he was placed on the helicopter that would take him to the combat hospital at Kandahar Air Field.
“If it was any longer, Kong might not be alive,” Gilbert said.
Laverna didn’t want to leave her husband’s side when she reached him at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland a week after the shooting. She got a patient bed and slept next to him there for two months.
By then, Matakaiongo had received care in Afghanistan and Germany. The Army wouldn’t send Laverna to Germany, which soldiers told her was a good sign. It meant doctors thought he’d live.
But his condition worsened as he crossed the Atlantic. Bacterial infections settled into his wounds, drove up his temperature and kept him delirious. He could not walk because he bled whenever he tried to move. He did not want to talk.
“I was just concentrating on surviving,” he said.
Laverna stayed close, caring for him between the regular surgeries during which doctors cleaned out her husband’s wounds.
“It was by far the most difficult time of our lives,” she said. “We were always tired.”
What Matakaiongo remembers about those days is feeling content when Laverna and baby Zion joined him and sad whenever they left.
In November 2012, his health stabilized enough for him to return to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he could continue his recovery at the medical unit known as the Warrior Transition Battalion.
Coming back to the South Sound would be a mixed blessing. He “wanted to see the guys,” the soldiers with whom he went to war.
But he did not want to be reminded of moments they shared in combat, when he’d seen their bloodied uniforms.
He avoided families of fallen soldiers when they traveled to Lewis-McChord in February to participate in a memorial for his Stryker brigade.
He soon found himself withdrawing from friends.
“I was an outgoing person,” he said. “I used to want to drink with friends. Now I don’t want to leave the house.”
He still feels constantly on alert when he goes out. On the highway, he tracks cars behind him as Laverna drives. In public, he’s always looking for someone who might hurt him or his family.
Once, at the Tacoma Mall, he grew suspicious because a man talked on his cellphone for too long in a food court.
He and Laverna have not returned there.
Morphine every six hours.
OxyContin as needed.
Percocet when that doesn’t work.
They’re the chemical crutches Matakaiongo uses until he can get to the next stage of his recovery. He can’t leave the house without them, for now.
“Everything I do depends on my pain,” he said.
These days, he often thinks about things he can’t do because of his injuries.
He knows he won’t be able to serve in the active-duty Army when he completes his rehabilitation.
“How can you be a soldier when you can’t even run or walk straight?” he vents.
He misses the teamwork of the military, misses playing the physical games he loved as a young man in the islands. He sometimes carries a rugby ball around the house. It comforts him.
“Can I run again?” he asked a pain management doctor he met at Madigan Army Medical Center last month. “I’d love to play rugby again.”
“I’m glad I don’t have to play against you,” the doctor, Maj. Adam Olsson, replied as he checked out the still-brawny soldier.
Matakaiongo visited Olsson to talk about a surgery that might reduce his pain and help reduce his need for medication. The procedure would place a small generator in his back that would send an electric current up his spine to the nerves in his brain that sense pain. The device would interfere with those nerves and lessen the soldier’s pain.
If it works, Matakaiongo wouldn’t have to take so many of the pills that make him groggy and carry a risk for long-term dependency.
The doctor said Matakaiongo would be a good candidate for the surgery. But Olsson couldn’t say if he would ever run again.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys that shut down with injuries like this,” Olsson said. “He’s more on the studly side.”
Though still edgy and introverted, Matakaiongo is fighting to come out of the shell of his PTSD.
He goes to counseling four times a week, twice in group sessions and twice for individual appointments. He recently took up art therapy and brought home charcoal drawings.
He works relentlessly at his physical therapy, swimming often with Laverna and playing with Zion any time of the day.
“I feel lucky every day when I wake up with my son,” he said.
He’s also meeting with a job counselor as he begins to imagine a life outside the military. He can see himself working on the business side of a construction company.
Laverna, too, is starting to think about what comes next for her family. Her experience at Walter Reed motivated her to pursue nursing school. She can’t imagine a more rewarding career.
On the day of his pain management appointment, Matakaiongo drove himself to a gym at Lewis-McChord and lifted weights for an hour by himself. It was the first time he had gone there without Laverna. She viewed the trip as a small milestone in his long recovery.
“There have been some really difficult times,” Laverna said. “And then it gets better. You think, ‘This is what I’m in it for.’ ”
Matakaiongo tore through his upper body repetitions on that cold November day. He saved his leg work for last. He knew it would hurt the most.
He settled in to a leg extension machine that would stretch his knees. He chose the lightest possible weight — the “girly weight,” he called it.
He pulled his right leg to his chest, the leg with the indentation where the AK-47 bullets destroyed his femur. He slowly pushed forward.
He grimaced in pain with every repetition. He pressed on.
“The hard part is over,” he said later that day. “What I experienced over there is over. Now it’s just living with it. Why am I going to let my past hold up my future? I live for the future. I live for my wife. I live for my son.”