Medal of Honor recipient talks combat and life to high school students
By CHRIS CASTEEL | The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City | Published: November 9, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — A week after receiving the nation's highest military honor for his heroism during a battle in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Matthew Williams was in the auditorium at Putnam City West High School on Friday fielding students' questions about whether he had been scared, how he felt about killing people and whether he was happy.
"Of course you're scared, right?" Williams said at the first appearance of a recruiting tour he's making as the latest recipient of the Medal of Honor.
"Of course the adrenaline kicks in and you don't know what's going to happen. The one thing that we are trained to do is put all that aside and separate those emotions and rely on our training. And that's exactly what we did.
"When you start receiving fire, you're trained at an early age ... on how to react. And then you have trust in your brothers and trust in your team. And the teamwork that we worked on and built – that cohesive unit that we developed in training – all came together and we relied on one another."
The Special Forces weapons expert was part of a 12-person team that, along with Afghan commandos, set out on April 6, 2008, to target a "high-value" terrorist. However, the soldiers immediately came under fire and the mission became "saving our brothers," Williams told more than 1,000 students and guests at the school.
Williams was the second member of the Green Berets team to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Shok Valley. Williams repeatedly scaled a mountain during fierce fighting to save wounded comrades and establish strategic positions.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced Williams at the event, which was also attended by Williams' wife, Kate. Williams, a Texas native, is now stationed in North Carolina.
Williams was in college in Texas on Sept. 11, 2001, and his plans for a career in law enforcement changed.
"Our country was at war, and I felt like I had the opportunity to serve in a different way," he said.
The audience seemed taken aback after one student asked Williams, "How hard is it to feel like you took so many people's lives?"
As students began murmuring, Williams said, "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right. Relax, relax, relax.
"You know, it's something you have to do and you separate yourselves from it, right? And for us, for me, and the job I chose to do, I knew that was going to be a position that I was going to put myself in.
"Those are decisions I have to make and are in direct concert with what decisions someone else has made for me or to my family or to my country. And I absolutely have no issue with putting people like that in their place if they are doing harm to the country, doing harm to my family, doing harm to myself, doing harm to others in my unit. That's something I understand and am willing to do and I think is 100% right to do for the country and for our freedom."
Much of the audience applauded.
Williams, 37, chose Putnam City West High School for his first speech because of its Veterans Day program, according to an Inhofe aide. Veterans Day is on Monday.
The tour that will take Williams around the country is part of the Army's new recruiting focus on medium and large cities. President Donald Trump awarded the Medal of Honor to Williams on Oct. 30 in a White House ceremony.
Williams, who plans to retire from the Army in six years, said he was not sure about his assignments after his Medal of Honor tour.
"I'm kind of taking that day by day," he told reporters. "But currently I'm still an active team sergeant on an (operational detachment) and I look forward to being able to deploy and serve my team and my unit and remain active in the special operations community as long as possible."
Williams told the students that he was "shocked and overwhelmed" to receive the Medal of Honor.
"It's not something I expected," he said. "It's not something that we do. We don't look for awards. We don't really care to receive awards. So when I got the phone call and realized that was happening, it was extremely overwhelming."
"Do you feel happy where you are right now in life, like, what you've done?" a student asked.
Williams said he was "extremely happy" but that he wasn't satisfied.
"I've got a wonderful family, I've got a wonderful career, I've got a wonderful group of guys that I work with every single day. ... As soon as I go home, I take this medal off and I get back to work with my team and we train and we train hard and we focus on what comes next for us and our mission," he said.
"Happy is something everybody should try to attain. You should be happy with the lot you have in life and where you are and always look to improve, but you should never be satisfied."
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