To his professors and classmates, 26-year-old Matthew Perry is just an average college junior, working toward a degree in criminal justice and sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. But unlike the average college student, Perry is transitioning from the dangers of Marine combat in Iraq to the normality of civilian life.
Returning home was not as easy a process as Perry had assumed it would be. He said it was hard to adjust to a life without the demands of military service.
â€œIn war, I had all of these responsibilities, and men under me, but when I came home I was just a college student,â€ said Perry.
The Veterans Administration has been helpful in offering services to returning soldiers, he says. While in service, Perry was told that he showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but he never pursued the diagnosis. After initially making mental health appointments with the VA, he didn't go.
â€œIt's hard to seek out help as a Marine, because you are made to believe you have to remain tough,â€ he said.
Now, two years later, Perry said he is serious about taking care of his mental health, with medical diagnosis and treatment, and plans to attend his first evaluation before the end of the year.
Perry also has faced the realities of criticism over the war. Constantly bombarded by anti-war sentiments from classmates and colleagues who opposed the presence of American troops in Iraq, this frustrated Marine tried to maintain his composure.
â€œIt was hard returning home having done all of these things for the country, and listening to opinions of people who thought they knew, when I had first-hand experience,â€ he said.
Perry is a member of a UMass-Boston veteransâ€™ organization, but said heâ€™s not an active member. He also is a member of the Veterans of Foreign War. A lifelong resident of Dorchester, he graduated from Boston Latin School in 2002 and enlisted in the Marine Corps two years later at age 20.
â€œI joined the Marine Corps to do something bigger than myself, and to contribute to the war effort,â€ he said.
At the time, Perry was enrolled in Quincy Community College, and, he said, unsure about the direction of his life.
During his first deployment, Perry served in an artillery unit, beginning with six months in Okinawa. While stationed in Asia, Perry aided in the relief efforts for the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004. After that, he was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, where he remained for seven months.
Perry was promoted to lance corporal in his first deployment and eventually to sergeant. After his service time ended, Perry volunteered to extend his term by three months to serve on a Navy vessel because he wanted to look after the young and inexperienced soldiers who had served under him and remained on the vessel.
â€œThere wasn't a lot of leadership at that time. They needed me,â€ he said.
Perry did not remain on the Navy vessel for long, however; he was deployed to Iraq for a second time. â€œI felt totally different about my second deployment. I had a bad feeling,â€ he said.
In his second round, Perry served in the infantry, training members of the newly formed Iraqi army, and providing food and shelter to needy civilians.
He described the living conditions as primitive, with soldiers sleeping in tents on the ground. He said he dropped 30 pounds in the subsequent months from the extreme heat and stressful circumstances. During that time, he also lost his best friend to a so-called Improvised Explosive Device in the form of a roadside bomb.
â€œA lot of the time, I didn't expect to make it home,â€ he said.
Support is available in many places for returning soldiers from Dorchester like Perry. One such resource is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, with its motto: â€œWe Got Your Back.â€ The organization offers in-depth online resources that available for veterans and their families.
â€œInside this community, veterans will find mental health resources, educational information, and tips on how to navigate the VA,â€ said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of the organization. â€œOver 3,000 veterans have joined the community, and our website has been visited more than 700,000 times by more than 500,000 unique visitors.â€
With veterans from every state represented, â€œthe community has become a critical tool for connecting veterans who are geographically dispersed, and might otherwise experience feelings of isolation and loneliness,â€ said Terrell Frazier, a member of the organization.
Perry said he was overjoyed to return home, and that he missed his family and good food the most.
â€œI would have killed for a slice of pizzaâ€ many times, he said. He also has had time to reflect. â€œIn war, you realize that material things are not important in the scheme of life,â€ he said. Perry still keeps in contact with the men and women he served with during his enlistment, describing them as â€œthe only people who understand what I've been through and what I'm experiencing.â€
Perry now lives in Milton, with his girlfriend of two years, whom he met through the Soldiersâ€™ Angel's program, which helps foster correspondence between civilians and soldiers. He hopes to begin a career in juvenile corrections after graduating from UMass where his education is financed in full by the U.S. government through the â€œ9/11 G.I. Bill,â€ which also includes a basic housing allowance based on the location of the college.
Perry looks to the future with hope and expectation. Also, he knows now that he will always be different. â€œI would never trade my military experiences, good or bad, for anything. They have made me who I am today,â€ he said.
Elizabeth Cohen and Chelsea DeCesare are undergraduate students in the Northeastern University School of Journalism.