By Nicole Veenstra
The well-known saying “experiences shape who we are” refers to specific times in history that affected a person enough to jump-start a change in his or her life.
For Matt Craw, he says his transformation began on the most significant day in America’s recent history: Sept. 11.
“Once Sept. 11 happened, something inside me kind of woke up,” he said. “It was kind of like a ‘dare to be great’ moment.”
Craw, a student veteran who plans to graduate next fall with a degree in English and concentration in professional writing, decided to compile his experiences as a marine in Operation: Iraqi Freedom into a book. He hopes the book will be published soon, though he jokes that it is difficult to get a book deal “if you’re not a cast member of the Jersey Shore or dating a celebrity.”
Craw remembers surfing in Deal, N.J., when he saw clouds of smoke creeping up the coastline. After a crying woman came running towards the water to yank her husband out, “everyone out in the water knew something was wrong,” Craw said.
He expressed interest in joining the Marines to a recruiter the following day. Because of the delayed entry program, he was able to finish up his semester of school and began boot camp in the spring of 2002. He served in Iraq during Operation: Iraqi Freedom until July 2003, when he returned to the U.S.
Unfortunately for Craw, his return to the U.S. did not mean he had escaped danger. He experienced a brain injury during a field training exercise when the vehicle he was in drove off a 20-foot cliff.
After his active duty was over, Craw returned to Brookdale Community College, which he had attended before enlisting in the Marines.
He reminisces about his first class after returning from the war in 2006, saying the professor told the students to “write what you know.” The first thing he wrote for that class is now the preface to his book, The Song Each Bullet Sings: The Story of Operation Iraqi Freedom Through the Eyes of One Marine.
“Writing the book forced me to deal with things I didn’t want to deal with,” Craw said. “It saved my life, in a way.”
He says he met his agent in December and currently has two publishing houses interested in his book, though he is not celebrating just yet. In the end, he hopes that he can help others understand what soldiers are going through.
“You’re a trained killer, but you’re also a father, a son,” Craw said. “That’s hard to separate. I hope the American public can get an actual view of what their sons and daughters are going through [from my book].”
Although Craw says he suffers from stuttering and verbal dyslexia as a result of his brain injury, his professors say they have seen no negative effects on his schoolwork.
“He was one of the most insightful, culturally aware, mature and active members of my Contemporary American literature class,” said Dr. Jack Sullivan, professor of English.
Dr. Katherine Maynard, professor of English, agrees with Sullivan’s description of Craw.
“I think [Craw’s] traumatic injury while in the military has certainly changed him and made life more difficult for him, but [it] has also made him more mature than most his age,” Maynard said. “I don’t know what he was like before, but now he is a sensitive, strong, articulate young man dedicated to learning and writing.”
Maynard says she was “struck by how empathetic he was to other students” while Craw was in her classes.
“He does this in a way, often with humor, that somehow made the other students feel safe to express their ideas,” she said.
In the same way Maynard says Craw helped students feel comfortable, Craw says writing helped him adjust to the routine of normal life.
“[The book] helped me wrap my head around Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Craw said. “Writing is like therapy for me.”