San Ramon Marine Fights Through Adversity

After serving his country for five years, Matthew Carhart begins to look at what's next.

In his San Ramon apartment, Matthew Carhart has an office stacked with letters, certificates and awards from well-known people thanking him for his military service.

There's a photo of Carhart with President George W. Bush, there are letters from his congressman and, in his bedroom, there's the Purple Heart.

On his desk, secured in a leather case, is a certificate from President Barack Obama, telling the 23-year-old how much he appreciated his service and sacrifice to the United States.

Carhart's days with the Marine Corps are numbered, but not by choice. He tried to re-enlist earlier this year, but his kidneys began to fail during a strenuous physical activity. It was the third time he'd had kidney problems and doctors told Carhart he could no longer be a Marine.

"They told me, basically, three strikes and you're out," he said.

On Dec. 1, Carhart will be officially medically retired from the Marine Corps. His kidney problem is a result of rhabdomyolysis, a condition that damages muscle tissue.

In Carhart's case, it was caused when a bullet ripped through his right forearm on the streets of Haditha, Iraq.

Going to war and coming home

After graduating from high school in 2005, Carhart spent time with his two older brothers, Steven and David. Steven was a Marine living near Camp Pendleton in Southern California, while David, the middle brother, was in the Army, stationed in Tennessee.

Carhart noticed a difference in mentality between the two branches. It made his choice an easy one.

"Not to badmouth any branch, but the Marines have the perception of being the best," Carhart said. "And I like the uniforms better, which is always a plus."

He completed infantry training at Camp Pendelton and was deployed to Iraq in September 2006.

It's worth remembering how different the Iraq of today is compared with the Iraq of 2006.

Obama declared Operation Iraqi Freedom officially over on Aug. 31 and U.S. troops are no longer engaged in combat missions.

But in 2006, before an increase in troops helped to alleviate the violence, Iraq probably was the most dangerous country on Earth.

The situation in Anbar province was particularly grim. In a Sept. 12, 2006, article in the New York Times, from an assessment by a senior Marine intelligence office, this is how the struggle in Anbar province was described:

"While the American military is focused on trying to secure Baghdad and prevent the sectarian strife there from escalating into a civil war, the assessment points to the difficulties in Anbar, a vast Sunni-dominated area of western Iraq where the insurgency is particularly strong. The province includes such restive towns as Ramadi, Haditha and Hit."

Carhart's job was to fight this insurgency. He was 19.

"I was nervous, anxious but at the same time excited," he said. "This is what I was trained to do."

Carhart saw his fair share of action in his first three weeks, but then his tour came to an abrupt halt.

In late September 2006, Carhart was on a combat mission with about 14 other Marines in the streets of Haditha. A sniper put Carhart in his crosshairs and fired. The bullet hit Carhart's abdomen, which was protected by body armor. But, it ricocheted off his armor and into his right forearm.

"It was confusing, scary," Carhart said. "I went into shock, so I don't really remember a whole lot, but I was laughing a little bit. Not that the situation was funny, but that's how I coped with it, trying to make it into a joke."

Carhart was rushed to a hospital but the shock started to wear off, and his arm began to hurt, really hurt. Doctors needed to give him an anesthetic so they could operate.

"They told to me to talk back from 10 and I told them they were retarded and that doesn't work," Carhart said. "I think I was out by nine."

The bullet had severed an artery and his right arm began to swell from internal bleeding. Doctors opened up his arm, wrist to elbow, to reduce the swelling. It stayed open for about a day, before doctors came back and closed it with 42 stitches. 

He was seriously injured, but Carhart didn't want to go home. The Marines said that if he had fully recovered in two months, he could return to his unit. The bullet had done too much damage, though. He was sent back to the United States in December 2006.

"Three weeks in and I get hit and I spend the rest of my time, a few months, in a hospital," Carhart said. "For me, that's not a deployment. I know I'm lucky, but I have a big sense of defeat with that."

"There's not a day that goes by when I don't think about how bad I want to deploy again."

Finding love, starting a family

Carhart went from the sandbox of Iraq to the beaches of Hawaii.

He was out of the hospital by the time he came home and continued his training with the Marines, along with taking college classes in Hawaii. In his free time, like so many other young adults, he logged onto MySpace.

On the social network, he found a friend he went to San Leandro High with, Nghi Bui.

"In high school he was very...," Nghi takes a long pause to find the right word. "Different."

"He was not scared to express himself. If he wanted to wear a cape and mask to school and be a superhero, that's what he did. If he wanted to go scuba diving in the puddles on a rainy day, that's what he did."

Nghi had left an impression on Carhart. He sent her a message over MySpace, Nghi didn't respond; he sent another, nothing from Nghi; he came to the Bay Area on leave and sent Nghi a message saying they should go to movies. Nghi, according to Carhart, stood him up.

"He was very persistent," Nghi said.

Eventually, the couple started talking, first on MySpace and then over Webcam and the phone. They wrote each other letters, too.

"She said I should send her a letter and I said, 'You mean e-mail?' " Carhart said with a laugh.

One one phone call, Carhart said (he claims on accident) that he loved her. Before long, the two were engaged.

They finally were able to see each other in person when Nghi greeted Carhart at the San Francisco Airport, just a few days before their November 2007 wedding. 

"We almost knocked over an old man when we were making out at the airport," Carhart said. "(Nghi's) mom looked very uncomfortable."

Nghi acknowledges it wasn't the most traditional way of falling in love, but said, "It just happened the way it did."

"My friends were a little worried about me," said Nghi. "But I think I made a pretty good decision."

The couple had Hunter in May 2009. Now, nearly 18 months old and 35 pounds, he is an active toddler.

"I've seen him tower over 3 year olds," Carhart said. "If you're a baby out there, don't mess with my son."

Life after the Marines

In February, Carhart moved to San Ramon after accepting a scholarship from the Sentinels of Freedom organization. The Sentinels of Freedom give four-year scholarships to members of the U.S. Armed Forces who were injured after Sept. 11. The program also helps with job placement.

"Basically, it's a program that helps you become a civilian again," Carhart said. "It helps you build a new network and it's basically a giant welcome home. It feels good."

Carhart is majoring in political science at Las Positas College.

"I could see myself in the future maybe running for office, but I don't really put a lot of thought into it as of now," Carhart said. "It's too far ahead, so right now I'm just focused on school. I'm not going to set any goals right now, I'm just going to see what happens."

Unfortunately, Carhart had to start from scratch at Los Positas because the credits he attained while going to school in Hawaii didn't transfer.

"I had over 60 credits, but it wasn't a California school and California schools like to be special," he said.

If it was up to Carhart, he would stay in the Marines, but since doctors say his kidneys aren't up to the task, he is looking to the future.

"It's hard, it's depressing, but the way I see it is if I don't move on with my life then I'm just wasting it," Carhart said. "So, there's no sense of letting it keep you from succeeding."

There isn't going to be any huge Veterans Day party in the Carhart household tonight. There will be a dinner — Carhart said he probably will treat himself to a steak, but admitted, like many Americans, he isn't sure how to celebrate Veterans Day.

Still, he's thankful for the recognition.

"It's kind of nice the country cares enough to gives us a holiday," Carhart said. "I get a few calls or text messages a year on Veterans Day and it feels nice."

When it comes to the sacrifice he made for our country, Nghi wraps it up best.

"It's amazing to me," she said. "Not a lot of young men come out of high school wanting to serve our country. I think that's very brave of him."


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