FORT KNOX, Ky., –
Matthew Mickey was in a dark place. There was an invisible wall there, and his back was pushed up against it. The world, it seemed, was coming down upon him from all directions. And he wanted out.
So when he walked up to a North Carolina recruiting station, he didn’t care who gave him the ticket to ride away. “Whoever takes me, takes me,” he said to himself. “I’m gonna try ‘em all.”
But he would only try one.
“What’s up bud?” Mickey remembers an Army recruiter asking him outside, before the homeless teen ever stepped into the station.
The date was Sept. 12, 2001. Mickey spent the previous morning watching hijacked airplanes change the world forever. His shock quickly turned to anger. His anger turned to action. His action was, he knows now, not so simple.
“My nation needed me,” he said. “That part of it is true. But the whole truth isn’t as patriotic. It really was a cry for help. I know that sounds dramatic, but my life was very dramatic at the time. I couldn’t fathom moving on alone, and I didn’t want to try.”
Mickey was born in 1984. Ask him where, and he’s not so certain. Dallas, Texas, most likely. His parents were travelers, he was told, but he has no memory of them. He entered Maryland’s foster care system when he was 2 or 3. His only knowledge of life before then came later from foster parents and counselors.
“They said they found me in an old shack,” he remembered. “They were feeding me beer instead of milk because they couldn’t afford both.”
Mickey doesn’t know who his father is. His biological mother is dead. A grandmother who took in his half-sister didn’t want him. He entered the foster system alone and remained that way the rest of his childhood.
The early years were spent bouncing “from foster home to foster home to foster home.” Parents came and went. Foster siblings came and went. Usually after giving him something to remember them by.
“I (got) into a lot of fights with other foster kids,” he said. “That was a constant thing.”
It was the older ones that liked to pin him against walls, he remembered.
“Those boys tortured me,” he said.
For an escape, he often turned to a world where people lifted each other up. Where they counted on each other. Where leaders were born.
“I used to play a lot of backyard imaginary sports games,” he said. “Like football, basketball, pretending I was on a team playing a championship.”
Jordan and Shaq often showed up to play in Mickey’s imagination. The scenarios, like for so many other young fans, borrowed from big games on TV. Exposure to television, however, was not common for him then. He had to choose what he liked most for the little time he was allowed. He was drawn to sports.
“That was the only thing I ever watched,” he said. “I picked it because it was a team effort. As a young kid, that is what I lacked in life…In foster care, nobody (was) a leader. Nobody (was on) a team.”
Mickey was 13 when he lived with a foster family outside Washington D.C. His foster parents provided a place to sleep and three meals, but required him to be out of the house otherwise. The door was locked, and he was not allowed in.
“I was allowed to use public transit,” he said, “but I wasn’t allowed to use the phone or watch TV.”
He found family elsewhere the best he could. Sometimes it was with friends. Often it was not. Mickey liked discovering things. A weird-looking tree in the woods. An old, rusted-out car. Things like him. Alone in the world.
“Even though I had a rough childhood, I still saw value in people, and places, and things,” he said. “I still had an appreciation.”
Homeless High Schooler
Mickey’s foster family moved to Asheville, North Carolina, just before his high school years. It was a big switch. In D.C., he always felt targeted as one of the only Caucasian students. In North Carolina, he found a lot of racism toward African-Americans.
“I didn’t like that at all,” Mickey said. “I always found myself in conflict…Back then, I had a chip on my shoulder. I had a lot of pent up aggressiveness that I did not know how to channel correctly.”
The inevitable happened. Skipping school. Wrong crowds. Bad decisions.
At 16, he had foster parents who qualified for social security. They were traditional folk. Mickey liked the loud sounds of Metallica and Pantera. Something had to give.
“They kind of kicked me out, and I kind of left willingly,” he said.
From 16 to 18, he was a homeless high schooler. Sometimes Mickey lived in his car. Sometimes he lived a rerun of foster life, jumping from one friend’s house to another, to another. He took work wherever he could find it. McDonald’s janitor. Grocery store jobs.
He worked in commercial plumbing and construction after school during his senior year. Shifts often finished long after midnight. He would then walk to his beat-up Isuzu Trooper in the parking lot for a few hours of sleep before school started.
The Trooper was the closest thing he had to a home. It barely ran and was covered in rust. He put newspapers against its windows in the winter for insulation. It helped. He seldom had heat.
“I stayed cold,” he said. “I didn’t really have much money for gas.”
Ironically, his money liked to find its way to the place he went when his car broke: homeless shelters. Asheville, a melting-pot city, has lots of them. Mickey made friends there. They asked for money to buy food. He gave it to them.
“He had a heart of gold,” remembered long-time friend Christopher “Buster” Brown. “He would take the shirt off his back and give it to you. He had leadership. He just needed someone to believe in him.”
Buster was the buddy Mickey could count on. A fellow class-clown type who saw a kindred spirit when Mickey showed up in the ninth grade. “You could tell we weren’t rich,” Buster said, “but we still took pride in what we had.”
They became close friends. They had those late-night talks that put trust to the test. Buster believed in Mickey when it seemed nobody did. Negativity was plentiful everywhere else he turned. During job interviews. Even from teachers, who took no interest in him because he was not college-bound.
“I was told many times in my life that I would be a failure,” Mickey said. “That I would amount to nothing.”
For his part, Mickey admits he didn’t do much to give his teachers faith. Education was “irrelevant” during that time of his life. He would finish his senior year 225th out of 226 students.
But it was there, on a Tuesday morning inside an art room at Clyde A. Erwin High School, when everything changed. Mickey was late that day so that he and a friend could smoke. He wasn’t even sure why the television in the room was on. It normally wasn’t. Then he saw the buildings, and the smoke, and the chaos.
This couldn’t be real, he thought. Was what he smoked that morning laced? Then the fog lifted. Reality began to set in. For Mickey, it was reality times 3,051, the estimated number of children who lost parents during the 9/11 attacks.
“That just didn’t sit well with me,” he said.
School shut down. He reported for work. His job that day was to lay carpet in an apartment complex. Meanwhile, layer upon layer of anger and sadness crept into his being. He kept thinking about the children--especially the ones who lost both parents or their only parent.
“If nobody in the family stepped up, they were going into the foster system,” he said. “They were going to have to live my life.”
He framed carpet until 11 that night. His mind raced and wrestled the whole time. Like an older foster sibling, the events of the day were pinning him against a wall inside his head. Torturing him.
Adding to the pain was a deep depression that had sunk inside him long before that horrific day. His young life already felt like a broken record of repeating doom. Doing construction the rest of his life seemed inescapable. College was a pipe dream. He could never afford it, and his “GPA sucked.” He had nothing and nobody.
“It was a delirium that is very hard to describe,” he said. “It overtook me due to my grief from being alone in the world.”
Mickey needed his own 911. His own call for help.
His last name was Smith. He probably was a staff sergeant or a sergeant first class, but Mickey knew nothing about rank at the time. He had never even thought about joining the military until he was laying carpet in a fit of fury the prior afternoon.
Sgt. Smith, an infantryman assigned to recruiting duty, may have possessed the most generic rank, name, and military trade combination in the Army. Smith might as well been named Sgt. John Doe, or GI Joe. Fitting, because Smith was about to become a guardian angel in camouflage disguise. He was about to change a homeless teenager’s life.
“He told me about his experience in the infantry,” Mickey remembered, “like how it’s a band of brothers and everybody is family.”
The words fell on Mickey’s ears like a blissful melody. They could have descended from above. Perhaps that’s why he remembers little else about the conversation. What happened after it was finished, however, is crystal clear.
“I walked out of that recruiting station feeling like he was my friend,” Mickey said, “like he was looking out for my best interest.”
Buster remembers talking to Mickey soon after. Buster could sense the fear of the unknown.
“You and me both know you can do it,” Buster urged him. “Make a life for yourself.”
Mickey soon learned Buster was right. Army basic training, the perdition that always follows the friendly backdrop of recruiting stations, was a welcome upgrade to Mickey’s Isuzu Trooper routine of minimal rest and going days without food.
“My childhood made boot camp easy,” he said. “I got way more sleep (there), and I ate more.”
His first Army occupation was cavalry scout. He performed reconnaissance missions before reclassifying into Smith’s infantry band of brothers (Mickey’s trademark smile now goes wide with pride looking at the famed 101st Airborne patch on his right arm).
It’s been nearly 20 years since Mickey raised that arm, swore his allegiance and began his Army adventure. Along the way, he’s had stints as a Bradley fighting vehicle driver, gunner and commander. He’s been a section leader, platoon sergeant, first sergeant, operations NCO, drill sergeant, college instructor, and education director.
“I found the enlisted world to be very amazing,” he said. “I really enjoyed the time I had with my Soldiers, and leading Soldiers, and just being a Soldier.”
Mickey was teaching Army ROTC classes in Pennsylvania when Capt. Joe Barrow showed up as a new instructor in early 2015. Barrow couldn’t find an available rental in the small college town of Slippery Rock. Still eager to help the homeless, Mickey told him about a place right next door to his.
Barrow also took up the office next to Mickey’s at the college, and the two literally became neighbors day and night. They talked often. Mickey, Barrow quickly discovered, was a special Soldier.
“The cadets absolutely loved him,” Barrow said. “He could connect with people, and they would listen to him.”
Barrow noticed much of the same when they walked across campus. It wasn’t just the cadets. Everyone knew Mickey. Everyone wanted to greet him.
“You could tell they cared about the guy,” Barrow, who has since retired, recalled. “It wasn’t a business exchange. He’s a very genuine person.”
Mickey was a master sergeant, one rank from the highest possible for an enlisted Soldier, when he began talking to Barrow about becoming a commissioned officer. He already had a bachelor’s degree, something he methodically pieced together “one class at a time” during his deployments and drill sergeant days. Now he was ready for a graduate degree, which the Army’s Green to Gold program would pay for at the college of his choice and ensure he commissioned as a second lieutenant when he was finished.
To Barrow, it was a no-brainer. "Building officers” for the Army was Mickey’s job in Slippery Rock, and “he was an expert in everything he was teaching them.” More importantly, Barrow knew Mickey would be an officer who always put his Soldiers before himself.
“He would do anything for you. He would give you the shirt off his back,” Barrow said, echoing what Buster recognized long before that shirt was Army issued.
Barrow saw what Buster saw. That inside Matthew Mickey was a heart of gold. That he had given it to the Army and his fellow Soldier. And it was time, Barrow told him, for the Army to give a little of it back.
Where It All Began
Mickey no longer wears the golden second lieutenant bars the Army gave him when he completed a master’s degree at the University of South Carolina. The bars are silver now, and 1st Lt. Mickey is an executive officer for the Army’s New York City Recruiting Battalion.
He lives in the city with his wife, Denise, and 9-year-old daughter, Lily. It was Denise, he said, who always encouraged him to become an officer, to get his master’s degree, to always look for “what’s next.” Mickey met Denise when he was stationed in Kentucky. She’s been the partner in his Army adventure for the last 15 years.
“It makes me feel great when he says that he feels complete now,” Denise said with a soft bluegrass twang, “that he feels like he is part of a team.”
Mickey hasn’t made up his mind, but he’s eligible for retirement soon and likely at the end of his Army journey. In the same place it began, nearly 20 years ago when two airplanes blew up what he now calls his backyard.
It’s “what’s next” that he hasn’t quite figured out. He knows he wants to continue using the education and skills the Army gave him to help others. Like when Mickey built an outreach program targeting at-risk students and increased college enrollment out of a high school by 23 percent.
Or when he built a nonprofit to help retiring NCOs get senior management jobs and training.
He’s got a few more ideas in the works. He wants to create a mini Ironman competition for those with special needs. He’s using skills acquired when he was a finance officer to design a stock market training program to help working-class people turn small sums into income, regardless of volatility. There’s already enough of that in their lives.
“I walk down the street and I see people who have so much value and so much purpose but have been beaten down by life,” he said. “They don’t even know that…they have the potential to accomplish anything they put their minds to.”
The Army can help them the same way the Army helped him, he tells some of those he meets on the New York streets. He sees the invisible walls inside their minds. Tear em’ down, just like I did, he says.
Because in a city that never sleeps, where the lights never go out, Matthew Mickey is no longer in a dark place.
Jason Schaap is a writer for U.S. Army Recruiting Command.