In stories shared with family and strangers alike, fallen Marine lives on
By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 18, 2015
TUCSON, Arizona — Like many grandmothers, Mary Determan loves to talk about her grandson. She carries pictures of Matt in a folder and lays them out for strangers, whether she’s at her weekly yoga class or in the Costco checkout line. She tells them of his service to his country, his courage, his sense of humor.
Then she tells them that he was killed in a military plane crash.
Some of the strangers weep. Some stammer, unsure how to react. But they all hear Matt’s brief life story, the one she yearns to keep alive.
“I just didn’t want him to die in vain,” Mary Determan said at a family barbecue held in Matt’s honor at her suburban Tucson home. “He was just at the peak, he had just found his niche – he had a hard time finding his niche – and he was excelling at everything he did, and I thought people have to know his story.”
Osprey made him nervous
When Lance Cpl. Matthew Determan died, he was – like the nation – somewhere between war and peace.
The 21-year-old Arizonan was on his way to the Gulf of Aden, near Yemen’s brutal sectarian conflict and Somalia’s endless war. At a training stop in Hawaii, he and 21 fellow Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit loaded onto a tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey, a hybrid between a plane and helicopter. The Osprey, which has a history of high-profile crashes and safety questions, made Matt nervous. He’d rather be on the ground, fighting, he told his parents.
In the midst of the flight, something went wrong – witnesses report an engine shutting off – and the Osprey slammed into a field, catching fire. Lance Cpl. Joshua E. Barron, 24, was killed instantly and Matt Determan, unconscious and mortally injured, was pulled out of the smoldering aircraft just before it erupted in a ball of flames. Several others were seriously injured.
“Second Marine succumbs to Osprey crash injuries” – it’s a headline that makes readers shake their heads briefly, perhaps read on, perhaps flip the page. There have been thousands of headlines like this in the past 14 years of America’s long war, and behind each one, a family like the Determans carries a crushing share of our national grief.
War fatigue set in long ago, to the point where many Americans are unaware U.S. troops are still in combat. For some families of the fallen, like the Determans, making sure their loved ones do not die in anonymity becomes a mission. They share their stories with all who will listen.
Matt’s father, Mike Determan, placed a picture of his son with some information about his life on a temporary post-9/11 troop memorial at a local mall, with Matt’s face nestled among more than 5,000 other tragedies. Now, Mike finds himself stopping by the mall from time to time, sitting in a chair down the hall, watching to see whether shoppers stop and read about his son.
“We’re not the only family that’s been through this misery and pain,” he said.
For the Determans, the call came May 17 just before 8 p.m. from an unfamiliar Virginia area code. Matt’s mother, Charlesa Determan, picked up. The voice on the other end was robotic and cold – something about an accident, a “level three” injury. Mike Determan saw his wife drop to one knee.
Matt’s parents, both Air Force veterans, scrambled to get themselves, their two other adult children and Matt’s grandparents to Hawaii. There they found Matt alive, attached to an array of tubes, with a catastrophic brain injury from which he would never recover.
“Your son’s body is here but his soul is in heaven,” Matt’s mother, Charlesa Determan, recalls the doctor saying.
The Marines, long on the defensive about the safety of Ospreys, initially called the accident “a hard landing mishap,” though they later used the word “crash.”
“I think they tried to downplay it,” Mike Determan said.
Matt was pronounced dead May 19. He turned 21 a week earlier.
The Marines gave reporters the wrong hometown for Matt, which meant several initial reports had him growing up in the wrong town. (He was born in Tucson but spent part of his childhood in Ahwatukee, Arizona). There was confusion about whether he was stationed in Hawaii. (He was not; he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego.) It all compounded the Determans’ grief and spurred them to tell his story.
“We got back from Hawaii and I thought, ‘Nobody knows about Matthew, in this whole community, nobody knows,’ ” Mary Determan said.
The Determans recently told his story at Mary’s home, which is adorned with pictures of Matt. Baby-faced and trim, he stares out confidently in his dress uniform, his white hat covering his ginger hair, the brim obscuring the fact that he had shaved his eyebrows just because.
In some ways, the most important part of Matt Determan’s story is the final chapter.
While he never had the chance to save lives in combat, in death he achieved what he had long dreamed of doing. His organs were donated, with his kidneys, liver, lungs and pancreas going to critically ill patients in four states.
“I wept after that,” Mike Determan said. “I was so happy that Matt lived on through somebody.”
Restless to become a Marine
That gesture marked the end of a life destined for the Marines. Matt’s grandmother Leanna Howard believes that it had something to do with the family’s Cherokee blood, but she and other family members say even as a young boy, Matt had a warrior spirit and talked of joining the Marines, like his grandfather. He became obsessed with U.S. military history, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of battles and weaponry.
But before he could join the Marines, he had to graduate high school. Matt’s dislike for school was matched only by his love for military history and Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey whiskey, Charlesa Determan said. When the topic interested him, he would become an expert, but the walls of a classroom didn’t agree with his restless nature. His mother said he had a hard time keeping his mouth shut and his grades up, but he finally got his diploma – a year and one expulsion later than expected -- to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a Marine.
That mouth, which got him in so much trouble, was also the source of many family stories. Matt had no filter, just utter brutal honesty sprinkled with laugh-out-loud jokes and spot-on impersonations. His mother said he had no inhibitions in social situations.
“He would walk up to anyone and start a conversation,” Charlesa Determan said.
Matt’s death has hit his older brother, Taylor, 23, particularly hard. Matt, Taylor and their older sister, Ashley Determan, 26, were inseparable growing up. The garage was the gang’s clubhouse, whether it was 100 degrees or near freezing, and they would spend hours there watching TV and arguing. Matt was the youngest, but Taylor said his brother grew up fast and was the one who looked out for him.
Taylor used to drive all night from Tucson after a long day at work for brief visits with Matt at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif. He struggled to get out the words, but he wanted everyone to know about his brother’s habit of slipping $20 or $30 to homeless people, which his friends thought was crazy.
“Matt would always say, ‘What if you were in their shoes?’ ” Taylor recalled.
Despite his penchant for Al Capone cigarillos and Jack Daniels, Matt excelled athletically. He finished first in his boot-camp class for physical fitness, though he never mentioned it, his parents said. Privately, Matt developed a deep faith, which his parents only found out about after his death, when they discovered notepads full of Bible passages and sketches of Christian imagery.
Matt’s fellow Marines, who filed into his hospital room three by three for hours, told his parents that the lance corporal not only kept his squad mates loose with his humor but commanded respect, even from his superiors. Matt’s badly injured buddy, who survived after a last-minute seat swap with Matt, cried with guilt.
Charlesa Determan said she told Matt’s friend that her son, had he known the outcome, would still have traded seats to save his buddy.
More than 300 mourners spilled out of the Church of Our Lady of the Desert in Tucson for Matt’s memorial service May 29, some sweating in the brutal desert heat to pay their respects.
There was a 21-gun salute.
Humor at the burial
On Independence Day, the family had a chance to say goodbye to Matt privately, clambering up a rocky desert hillside dotted with saguaro cactus and ancient petroglyphs etched into rust red boulders. It was an overcast morning, a stroke of luck in July, when temperatures often spike well above 100 degrees.
“I think Matthew had a lot to do with the weather,” the Rev. Greg Wiest said before presiding over the burial.
Matt loved his country, but he particularly liked fireworks, making The Fourth of July the perfect day for his burial, Mary Determan said. Ashley recalled the time Matt and his brother terrorized her with firecrackers in the backyard when their parents went out for the evening.
As they prepared to bury Matt, the Determan clan didn’t shy away from the gallows humor that Matt would have appreciated, that kept them from breaking down. When Matt’s grandfather, Dick Determan, stepped into the hole where Matt’s ashes were to be buried to adjust a photograph, there was a chorus of, “It’s not your turn, Grandpa!”
But when Wiest began reading from the Bible, the gregarious family fell silent. Charlesa looked to the sky, tears streaming down her face. Family members took turns shoveling dirt over the small square box holding Matt’s ashes.
“Semper fi, Marine!” Matt’s grandfather, Marine veteran Jack Moberg, said as he sobbed.
As Mike Determan pounded the last bit of dirt into the ground where his son now rests and Taylor placed a polished stone with an Irish cross, the finality of the moment sank in.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” Charlesa said. “I don’t think it ever will.”