OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Matt Mitchell is an Okeechobee native. He joined the Army during his senior year at Okeechobee High School and went to basic training in August 2002 immediately after graduation. He said he joined to see the world and, at the time, he wanted to get as far away from Okeechobee as he could possibly get. He went to basic in Fort Knox, Ky., which is not much different from Okeechobee, but he said he didn’t really see it anyway. “You are pretty much under lock and key the entire time you are in basic training and don’t get to experience much of the town while you are there.” He did what is called OSUT (One Station Unit Training). It was a shortened version of basic training, and then AIT (Advanced Individual Training) is extended and is at the same location. He trained to be a tanker.
His first assignment after basic training was in Germany. The war in Iraq had just started, he explained. In late March 2003, he was in Kuwait getting ready to go to Iraq. He said the Army’s strategy was to have forces placed strategically throughout the world. It increases their deployability. With them being in Germany when the war in Iraq began, it was logistically easier and faster to get them to Iraq. It was also a residual lesson from WWII, he said, when they had posts in Germany. “They essentially kept the same bases. The idea behind that is maintaining a presence in the area.”
When he first got to Germany, it was a complete culture shock, he said. It was his first time out of the country, and really, he said, growing up in Okeechobee, he had only left the state of Florida one time to go to Georgia for less than a day. Then, he had been on the eighth -grade trip to see Washington, D.C., but other than that, he had never left the state. “I had only understood and recognized the culture of Okeechobee,” he said, “in all of its glamorousness.” He did what a lot of Americans do when they travel abroad, he said. He talked very slowly, thinking everyone spoke German and would understand him better if he spoke slowly. He thought it was a wonderful experience and was treated very well there.
He found it interesting that Germany has a history with Hitler and trying to create a super race, but they did not seem to have the sort of racism he has experienced in the United States. “In Germany, you were just a good guy. There were no preconceived notions about it that we have in our culture. Things like not worrying about seeing someone wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag on it and knowing I couldn’t just approach that person and strike up a conversation. I never felt like I was getting that side-eye look you get when people feel threatened by you, like they don’t want you there or feel nervous around you or scared of you. Or the cliché of the women who clutch their purses tighter as you walk past. It felt different than growing up in Okeechobee. It was an awesome experience for me. All the stuff I had to worry about there, I found myself doing when I got to another culture, and they were like, ‘Why are you doing that? We think you are great. We want you here.’ I really enjoyed my time there,” he said.
One of the most memorable things about Iraq, he said, was the heat. He was able to pick up a little bit of the language while he was there, and he got the impression that the local people were of two minds about the Americans being in their country, In some ways, they were a hindrance, but in some ways, they were a help. The insurgents who had occupied the area were not friendly to the people, but the Americans were. They brought them things they needed and tried to help them. This helped forge some friendships between them, and lots of times, this came in handy when they would get tips from the locals about someone with an IED. “That type of information could prove to be life-or-death in those situations.”
Mitchell worked his way up to tank commander fairly quickly, he said. He commanded his own tank and section. He went on to become an intelligence analyst with a special forces group for a couple years before deciding he wanted to give it up.
While conducting a routine patrol, Mitchell’s vehicle ran over an IED buried beneath the road in Iraq. There were about 75 pounds of explosives. Mitchell received a Purple Heart for being wounded during that incident.
Mitchell went to Germany in 2003, deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He was stationed in Washington state and was deployed to Iraq again in 2007 and 2008. Then he went to Delaware as a recruiter 2009 to 2012. At the end of 2012 and through 2013, he was in South Korea. Then, he was sent to Columbus, Ga. He finished up his active duty there. He was in the National Guard for about two years in Alabama. His favorite job was working as a recruiter, because he enjoyed debunking the myths everyone had heard about the Army.
His original intention was to serve one six-year term, but he ended up serving two terms. After that, he wanted to go back to college, he explained. He is now working toward a business degree and hopes to work as an insurance broker.
When asked if he would recommend joining the military to a young person today, he said he would suggest they explore all their options before making up their minds. “I laser focused in on joining the Army, so I didn’t even look into colleges or other avenues of things to do.” He explained no one in the family that raised him had completed a four-year degree, so they did not know the avenues available for scholarships and things like that. They steered him toward the military because it was a stable job and maybe a career to fall back on later.
Mitchell has three children from a previous marriage, who live in Dublin, Ireland, with their mother. His daughter, Amaya, is 13 and sons, Marcus and Mason, are 11 and 9. He and his fiance, Sarah Bryant, welcomed their new baby boy, Luka, on July 9.