“Sense of Duty: Matthew Ruhnke”
I think an appropriate place to start would be at the beginning. So if you don’t mind, tell me a little bit about your background, the early years, where you grew up. Let’s start with that.
“Sure, I grew up in Petal, Mississippi – what most people would consider ‘Small Town, USA.’ My childhood was – it was okay. It was better than some but worse than others. The main driving force behind my decision to join the military was to find opportunity. There wasn’t a lot where I was from in the rural south. That’s what got me there.”
And did you stay in Mississippi for the majority of your childhood and do high school there?
“Well, I actually left high school in the ninth grade to begin working and to help support my family. It was pretty common where I was from. I mean, a lot of people graduated, but not many of my peers went on to college. By the time I had turned 19, I realized going to college was important to me, so I decided to join the military. The Army offered an opportunity to not only continue my education but to explore the world outside of my small town.”
Now, let’s talk about when you decided to join: was someone in your family in the military? Was there a certain person or event that sort of drove you towards that?
“I grew up in a pretty conservative town, and joining the military was a very respected occupation. My uncle was in the Mississippi National Guard and a team sergeant in 20th Special Forces Group (SFG). He encouraged me to join when he saw I was starting to get in trouble around town. I believe my grandfather was in the Air Force during WWII, but it wasn’t a ‘family business’ like it is for many. My younger brother did follow in my footsteps and joined the Mississippi National Guard. He just returned from his first deployment a few weeks ago.”
So what drove you to join? To seek opportunity elsewhere?
“Seeking opportunity was a primary motivator, but I was also driven by a sense of duty and desire to serve. I joined in 2003, a couple of years after 9/11. Having never left the South East, New York City might have been another world to me at the time, but I was still impacted by the loss that day. I also admired the sacrifice of those who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan following the attacks. I felt it was an opportunity to make a difference and be part of something bigger, something I would not have had if I stayed in Mississippi.”
Now when you got in the Army, what was your initial job? I understand you were in the Special Forces community. What did you get in as and were you in the SF community the entire time?
“No, so when I entered the military in 2003, I joined as a 19D or a Calvary Scout. I went to Basic Training at Fort Knox, then Airborne School, and on to my first duty station, which was Hawaii. Shortly after arriving, I completed my first deployment with the 25th Infantry Division to Afghanistan in 2004. While I was there, my unit did a bit of work with a team from 7th Group. Having worked with them, I was extremely impressed by the close-knit bond of the team, the culture of excellence, and the type of missions they were called to do. So I went to Selection when I got back. I was selected to attend the Special Forces Qualification Course, reassigned to Fort Bragg, and graduated the Q-Course in 2008. From there, I went to 5th SFG and served on ODA 5326, and then ODA 5325, which was a dive team. I left Active Duty in 2012 and served one year in the Mississippi National Guard in 20th SFG. I was actually on the same team that my uncle, whom I mentioned previously, was the team sergeant on for many years.”
Do you mind explaining to those readers who weren’t in the military what Selection is all about? Describe what that is to people.
“Sure, so ‘Selection’ is the common term for Special Forces Assessment and Selection. Essentially it’s tryouts to enter into the Special Forces Qualification Course, or the training pipeline to become a Green Beret. It was intense. They’ve changed the curriculum for Selection over the years, and go back and forth between two weeks and three weeks. When I was there, it was three weeks long. The first week consisted of psychological and personality testing and individual fitness assessments – mainly a lot of running and road marching. The second week was all land navigation and the infamous ‘Star Course.’ This tested our trainability, and capacity to work independently. The last week was called ‘Team Week.’ This was designed to assess our leadership abilities, teamwork skills, and problem-solving capabilities. The final event is referred to as ‘The Trek.’ It was a very long movement or road march. We are not told the exact distance, but ours was approximately 34 miles.”
“It was the most physically and mentally challenging experience during my time in the military. Each day seemed more difficult than the last. By the time we got to Team Week, most were running on pure will. If you weren’t fully committed to being a Green Beret, it was unlikely that you would complete the training. Our class had about a 50% drop-out rate, and of those who completed the training, only about half were selected to continue on to the Q-Course. Many individuals also failed out of the Q-course. So the entire process from Selection through graduation – some 2-3 years later – is very selective. Only a fraction of those who show up for Selection actually earn a Green Beret.”
And from working with some of those guys, what traits do you think separate them from someone in the regular Army? What makes a Green Beret successful?
“The selection process is pretty rigorous. So nobody makes it to the teams unless they really want to be there. We were all selected for problem-solving, leadership, and teamwork abilities, which are further developed throughout the Q-Course and other advanced training opportunities. These qualities are apparent on the teams. ‘Team Guys’ will always place the team and mission first, and constantly seek ways to improve themselves and further the efforts of the team. We were also confident that the individual next to us was competent and capable and would strive for excellence. This created a culture of excellence that I have not experienced since leaving the military.”
Got it. And now when you got through Selection – what group were you assigned to after the Q-Course?
“I was assigned to 5th SFG after I completed the Q-course, and went straight to ODA 5326. Following my first deployment to Iraq, I tried out for the dive team and was reassigned to ODA 5325. I deployed to Oman with ODA 5325, completed the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course, and then another deployment to Iraq. Following my time on active duty, I served 1-year in the Mississippi National Guard in 20th Group.”
What was your job before that? Before you went to dive school, what was your role with the team?
“When I joined ODA 5326, I was a junior communications sergeant for the team. Special Forces teams are made up of a couple of different Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). You have the 18Bs who are the weapons sergeants, 18Cs who are the engineers, 18Ds who are the medics and the 18Es, which are communication specialists, and an 18F who is responsible for intelligence analysis. Then you have the leadership, which are 18Z, the team sergeant and senior enlisted, and the 18A who’s a captain and the team leader. As the junior communications sergeant, I was responsible for our IT systems and communications.”
“On both deployments, my teams were embedded with Iraqi Special Operations Units, and I spent a lot of time training my Iraqi counterparts within ISOF, much of which focused on improving the unit’s operational capability. For instance, as the designated Fast Rope Master during my second trip to Iraq, I was tasked with developing, coordinating, and overseeing a training plan to certify our counterparts to conduct Fast Rope operations. ‘Fast Roping’ is similar to rappelling, except you slide down a large diameter rope from a helicopter and are not clipped into a rappel harness. This training significantly increased our joint capabilities by extending our reach and the sorts of operations we could tackle. I also spent a great deal of time mentoring and developing the leadership of the Iraqi units I worked with. This was probably the most rewarding aspect of the job. It afforded me the opportunity to develop one-on-one relationships and friendships with these individuals, gain better insight into the organizational challenges faced by these units, and experience the Iraqi and Kurdish cultures in ways I otherwise would not have been able to.”
I’d like to shift now to one of the questions I ask most people I interview: could you describe some of the soldiers that you worked with that had an impact on your service?
“The soldiers who had the greatest impact on my service, and my life since, were the guys that I worked with when I was on the teams. We had a high operational tempo, so I spent more time with my team than I did my family. Because of the selective nature of the Special Operations community, these men are literally some of the most capable, intelligent, and driven leaders in the world. Spending that much time as a member of a community, surrounded by that caliber of individual has really stuck with me. Years later, I still bring that same commitment to excellence in all I do.”
And the flip side of that, when you hear the term leader, who was the first person that comes to your mind?
“The first person that comes to mind is Master Sergeant Reed. He was the senior instructor at my dive school when I went to the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course in Key West. We had a very small class; I think we started with twelve and graduated maybe six. He was also a war hero, receiving multiple valorous awards while on Triple Nickel (ODA 555). He was just an amazing individual. He exuded leadership. He was calm and soft-spoken, but he was able to get things done and inspire all the students there. He was a great guy who was easy to talk to. He’s what I think of whenever I hear the term leader. There are, of course, many others throughout history who have inspired others and accomplished great things, but as far as my own personal experience goes, he is the one who comes to mind.”
Can you tell me about your most memorable experience while wearing a uniform?
“Wow. So there’s a lot of them. I think the one that stands out to me was in relation to a personal accomplishment. At the end of Selection, after we finished all of the events and our Trek, there’s a little bit of downtime while we waited to find out if we were selected. Of course, the candidates spent much of that time considering their performance throughout Selection and wondered if we were, in fact, selected. One of the hallmarks of Selection is that candidates don’t get any feedback on performance throughout the entire course. Eventually, everyone that was left assembled in a large room, and the cadre started calling out names. Once the class was divided into two groups, my group, which was left in the auditorium, was told that we were Selected to attend the Q-Course. That was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Selection was grueling – both physically and psychologically. I had also spent months training for it prior to arriving and was honored to have been chosen to join such an amazing community of professionals and leaders. I’ll never forget that moment; it was an intense feeling of relief, pride, and excitement.”
“Of course, there are many other moments from my time in service that will stick with me forever. Many are related to the bonds I formed, and good times had on the teams. Others are less pleasant and associated with combat experiences. There were all important and memorable in their own right.”
Is there a particular taste, touch or smell that symbolizes the Army to you?
“Maybe not so much the Army, but my time on deployments certainly. One smell that brings me back is sandalwood. It’s a common scent used in the Middle East for perfume or cologne. Every time I smell sandalwood, it reminds me of engaging the local populous. It brings all sorts of memories, from meeting with village elders and community leaders to having lunch with my Iraqi counterparts, to being on an objective or other high-threat situations. Mostly I’m reminded of my time working with my Iraqi counterparts. We all lived on the same installation and compound, and I spent a lot of time working with them directly. Pretty much every day was spent either working with them in the shoot house, planning missions with their leadership or developing their communication section. Those are fond memories for the most part.”
Could you talk about how your time in the service changed you and how you’ve continued to serve after you left the Army?
“So it has given me confidence in myself, and the ability to persevere, work outside of my comfort zone, and set high standards for myself. I also carry the culture of excellence that was instilled in me as Green Beret. My service also provided the opportunity I was searching for through my GI Bill benefits. I recently graduated from the University of New Haven where I had the opportunity to conduct research at Yale and the National Center for PTSD, and just accepted an offer to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. These things would never have been possible for the high school dropout from south Mississippi if it were not for my service.”
“Additionally, I just have a really cool story and a lot of amazing life experience to draw from. For instance, as a Special Forces operator, I engaged foreign military officials and heads of state and worked out of embassies. There are not a lot of 24 or 25-year-olds who get the opportunity to experience that sort of responsibility. It really helps keep things in perspective when facing a difficult task now. Those sorts of experiences also pay off dividends now in my civilian life. I’m looking forward – when I reenter the workforce – to those things setting me apart from my peers.”
“And the second half of the question – how I’ve continued to serve? Much of my service has focused on helping other veterans deal with the transition from active duty and address issues that may have arisen from their time in the military. This is important to me because my transition from active duty was less than smooth. I struggled with PTSD, homelessness, and substance abuse problems for a while. So needless to say, there were a few bumps in the road, and it took me a while to find my footing. Eventually, what made the difference was finding a community of veterans in the student veteran organization at the University of New Haven. That community helped ground me. It gave me a foundation to step out from and explore my interests. Having a community was so important to my transition and recovery, I want to make sure it is available to others as well. So building community is where much of my service activities are focused.”
“Much of my research as an undergraduate also centered around trauma and PTSD – which I consider a form of service in itself. I had the opportunity to contribute to research at the National Center for PTSD – Clinical Neuroscience Research Division and Yale Department of Psychiatry. Some of the work the lab I was a member of was instrumental in the development of the new Ketamine treatments for PTSD. I also received my yoga teacher certification and am part of the Veterans Yoga Project. I haven’t taught classes in a little bit, but am still involved at the community level helping organize yoga classes for veterans and connecting veterans to those sorts of services. I was also a member of the Mental Health Community Advisory Board to the VA-CT Healthcare system. It’s a group of veterans and community partners that provide policy recommendations to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System and the state government offices.”
“I was really invested in the veteran community on campus at UNH. I served in multiple positions on the executive board, including President, for the Military Veterans of the University of New Haven student organization. We put a lot of effort into awareness raising and community building activities on campus and in the local community. So yes, service is a big part of my life, and I hope to continue my service to the veteran community in the future.”
That’s all fantastic man. I’m glad to hear it. What are you going to be studying at the University of Chicago?
“The program I’m entering into is the Masters of Arts Program in Social Sciences (MAPSS). It’s an interdisciplinary, research-based program – so it’s pretty flexible. I’m actually meeting with a faculty member from the Booth School of Business next week whose research focuses on prejudice and stereotype formation, to discuss my contributing to his research efforts. This would be ideal as I am considering entering business when I graduate, and the opportunity to engage the academic community at Booth is extremely attractive.”
“However, I was also deeply impacted by the backbreaking poverty and limited access to basic healthcare I witnessed while deployed. So I have interests which revolve around humanitarianism, human rights, and social services in the regions impacted by armed conflict. I think the program at the University of Chicago is flexible enough that I’ll be able to explore these interests while preparing me to enter the workforce – either with an NGO, not-for-profit, or the corporate world.”
That’s tremendous. It sounds like whatever direction you go, you’re going to be doing some good work. The last question I have would be: what do you think the average civilian should know about the military?
“I guess if there is one thing I’d like to impress on the average individual about veterans, maybe not the military per se, is that most of us are pretty open. If you want to know something, just ask us. Many of us appreciate when others take interest in our service and are happy to talk about it. We may not want to discuss all of our experiences but are usually happy to answer questions. That’s why I actually like doing these sorts of interviews, to provide the general public access to the veteran community. It is one of the most important parts of bridging the civilian – veteran or military divide. So I enjoy speaking about it and feel it is important work.”
“On the flip side, I also like to encourage veterans to share their own experiences and reach out to the public at large as well. Veterans can be pretty good at taking care of our own – and promoting community and building that base of support is extremely important to me and something I work hard at doing – but if we’re just hanging out with ourselves, we’re not connecting with the larger community. So whether it’s on campus, in the workplace, or at the national level – we as veterans should be doing our part to connect with and serve the larger communities we find ourselves in as well.”