DeKALB – Pat Fletcher clearly remembers the day, 12 years ago, when her son Matthew announced that he wanted to be a soldier.
“He was in fifth grade when 9/11 happened, and we watched it that night on television, and he looked at me and said, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to join the Army and get the bad guys.’ And he did,” she said.
Matthew Fletcher was recently discharged from the Army after serving four tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. His parents organized a welcome-home celebration for him because, according to Pat Fletcher, “Rangers don’t usually get any of the glory and the parades and the send-offs and the welcome homes.”
Many of the details of Army Rangers’ operations are classified, and Rangers themselves tend to shy away from the spotlight. Rangers’ duties include airborne and air assault operations, airfield seizure, special reconnaissance, personnel recovery, clandestine insertion, destroying strategic facilities, and sensitive site exploitation.
Matthew Fletcher sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss Ranger training, his tours of duty in Afghanistan, and his post-Army plans.
MidWeek: How was the welcome-home surprise?
Matthew Fletcher: It was really good. It was surprising. I didn’t see that coming.
MW: When and how did you decide to join the Army?
MF: I joined the Army when I was 18. It was right after the football season and I realized I wasn’t going to get a scholarship or anything, so I was looking at other options of how I could go to college, and the military seemed like a good challenge. I wanted to do the hardest thing the military had to offer, and that’s why I ended up joining the Ranger regiment.
MW: What is a Ranger?
MF: You do special operations and direct action raids. If you need to get a high-value target, the Rangers are who you’ll send.
MW: The Army’s website says that as a Ranger, your country expects you to “move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier.” Do you agree with that statement?
MF: Yes, that’s from the Ranger’s Creed.
MW: Were you in-country when Special Forces captured Osama Bin Laden?
MF: I think I had just gotten back from my first deployment when we got him.
MW: How did the Rangers and other troops react to his capture?
MF: I remember it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Him being so far up there (in the chain of command) didn’t make a difference. He was just another target.
MW: When you read the details of the capture of Bin Laden, can you picture in your mind all the little details?
MF: It’s funny seeing that movie they made about it (“Zero Dark Thirty”) because it’s pretty accurate. I think a lot of people said a lot of things they weren’t supposed to say to make that movie.
MW: What were the Afghani people like? Did you have a lot of interaction with them?
MF: Yes, we had a lot of interaction with them. They are just not educated at all, which makes it hard to work with them because they can’t read, they can’t write, and they can’t understand what we’re trying to tell them half the time. ...They are just kind of empty people. They don’t have a lot going on, and they fight among each other constantly. ...It’s definitely surprising to see how the Afghan people lived. It reminded me of how I would imagine people in the Bible living.
MW: Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing a live grenade and throwing it away. He saved two of his fellow soldiers but lost a hand in the process. Does that sound typical of something a Ranger would do?
MF: Yes, definitely. Anyone from the newest private all the way up to sergeant major at any point during any mission, you’re ready to do that. You almost want that opportunity to do that. That’s the mentality before you go out – you want to go above and beyond. That’s why I chose to be in the Ranger regiment, because I know every single person is like that and everybody’s got your back when you go out.
MW: What was Ranger training like?
MF: You go through the infantry basic training, and then right after that you go to airborne school, and after that you go to the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. The first four weeks is where they really beat you down and a lot of people quit. They weed out everybody who doesn’t really want to be there. The second four weeks is individual training, where they teach you demolitions, breaching, and all that good stuff you’re going to do when you get to the regiment.
MW: What was it like jumping out of a plane for the first time?
MF: It was terrifying. The very first jump, I could barely stand up. When the part comes to stand up and hook up, I hooked up and my knees were shaking. I wanted to just sit back down, I wanted to quit, I wanted to throw up. The people just started walking (toward the plane’s open door) and you follow them and the next thing you know, you’re flying through the air and you go, “That’s it?” Every single time I feel that way. I did more than 20 jumps and every single time it’s, “Oh man, I [expletive] hate doing this.”
MW: I read that you went to Master Breacher school. What did that entail?
MF: It shows you things like explosives and different ways to gain entry, like mechanical breaching, thermal breaching and ballistic breaching.
MW: How many people who apply to be Rangers actually become Rangers?
MF: For the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, there were 185 people who started the class and only 35 graduated. In my Ranger School class, I think we started with 300 or 400 people and I think only about 150 ended up graduating. ...I went from 220 pounds down to 180 pounds for both times for the assessment program and Ranger school.
MW: How was the food over there? Did they feed you well?
MF: My first and second deployments were pretty good, but then the last two were extremely bad. I was only eating maybe once a day. One day we’d have a good meal so we’d grab extra “to go” plates and eat those for the next two days. The chow hall is on day hours and we were working night hours so you’re sleeping while the regular Army is eating so you miss a lot of meals like that. If it’s (a choice between) food or work, we always have to work.
MW: Are you home for good now?
MF: Yep, I’m home for good. I’m going to College of DuPage and I’ll play football there for a year, maybe two. Then I plan on transferring, hopefully to (Northern Illinois University).
MW: Are you a lifelong resident of DeKalb?
MF: I’m from Rochelle, but we moved to DeKalb my freshman year of high school.
MW: How often did you get back to DeKalb to visit while you were in the Army?
MF: I came back for two weeks every six months.
MW: Were you able to call home often?
MF: It was kind of hard calling home so I didn’t do it very often. There, your entire focus is on violence. You wake up, you check everything, you make sure everybody is doing stuff, and if they’re not doing it you are yelling at them and you are mad. You go violently work out, you do MMA (mixed martial arts) training, you’re hitting each other, you’re hitting bags, you go do a mission, you’re constantly aggressive 24/7. And then when I’d call home I’d start to miss someone, and I’d just want to get off the phone.
MW: You can now grow your hair, eat fast food and do everything else civilians do, but do you feel like you are a real part of civilian life?
MF: I feel like I’m on vacation now. It hasn’t really set in that I’m home for good. It feels weird not being in charge of anything anymore. I went from training men constantly and being in charge of people, and now I’m just here.
MW: What are your plans for Veterans Day?
MF: We don’t have any plans, I don’t think. We usually go see Grandpa’s grave in Byron and put flowers on it.
MW: Do you expect winter to be tough?
MF: Oh yeah, I don’t even remember what winter is like. I’m going to buy a coat today.