Army Medic Matthew Watrous in Camp Doha, Kuwait, 1996.

A military veteran’s journey to nonviolence in three questions

Former Army Medic Matthew Watrous discusses his journey from "saber-rattling" in Kuwait to learning nonviolence theory and history.
Army Medic Matthew Watrous in Camp Doha, Kuwait, 1996.

Ever listen to the Metta Center for Nonviolence’s Nonviolence Radio, read one of our amazingly hand-crafted transcripts or take one of our self-paced courses? Then you’ve run into the work of our team member Matt Watrous, who is also a veteran.  Here’s his journey to nonviolence in three questions: 

What drew you into the military?

I lived in a remote part of California, where it was difficult to find employment without having transportation, and I couldn’t afford transportation without being employed. So, I joined the Army Reserves, thinking it’d help pay for college and maybe a vehicle.

I went to basic training in 1993 before I finished my 12th grade in high school and had a hard time re-adapting when I came back to school. It was two very different worlds. A few teachers wanted nothing to do with me after that. (I suspect they weren’t fond of the military and were disappointed I wasn’t pursuing higher education.) I barely graduated, and wouldn’t have without the encouragement of my recruiter.

After high school, I went active duty instead of college because I wanted to see more about what the military was about and get medical experience. And it was a world where I was accepted and respected.

What was your service?

I swore my oath to be an Army Medical Specialist, aka medic. When I supported the Scout platoon and the tank company, I was the person who showed up whenever anybody cried “Medic!” I worked under some exceptional medical people who taught me a lot about preventative medicine, and did my best to keep people from hurting themselves. And everybody wants the medics to sleep. An overwhelmed medic is a bad day. So, I slept a lot, at first. 

It was a great gig, until I reenlisted to work in the Mother/Baby Ward in the hospital. Those women ran my butt off! I worked nights, and rarely slept during the day.

To serve both worlds — the “maleness” of the Army, learning to drive and fix the tanks, operate machine guns and all the macho stuff. To then work with tenderness and sensitivity with the mothers and newborns in the safety and sanctity of a delivery room — it was a trip. The term “sensitive items” means very different things in the different worlds.

Military medics have a different scope of practice compared to their civilian counterparts.

And how did you get interested in nonviolence?

Like most – through violence. My father was prone to anger and violence, and I realized I could be just as angry and more violent but chose against it. I didn’t understand it at that young age, but I knew I had beaten him with his own hands without playing his game or escalating it. He never hit anyone again. (The only fight I’ve only really been in, has been with myself.)

In the Army, I volunteered to support a tank battalion deploying to Kuwait for “saber-rattling” or “training” exercises (which is when soldiers go to the edge of their enemy’s border and make a bunch of noise, usually with explosives, to try to either intimidate or to start a fight.) At the time Saddam Hussein was attacking our Kurdish allies to the north. The U.S. deployed 1,000 troops, and then over 5,000 more to cause a distraction on Iraq’s southern border. I was in the first batch. 

Along with the British and Kuwaiti armies, we used a lot of explosives and pyrotechnics near the border of Iraq in a large combined exercise. Using all our artillery, tanks, and planes to shoot at targets carefully rigged to explode for the sake of the politicians, officers and diplomats observing it from a hilltop. 

I was the range medic for my sector, and it was also my job to “guard the targets” for several days to make sure nobody was stealing explosives. So I got to inspect them before they got blown up. And then we had a mighty feast together afterwards, to celebrate our so-called display of fire power. We call this a “dog and pony show.” An utter waste of time and resources to achieve some geopolitical ambition.

When I volunteered for the mission, all I knew was that it was going to Kuwait for a few months with the tanks, for “training exercises.”

Only four medics from my platoon went. Our platoon’s motto was “They kill, we heal, hooah!”

Medics have a separate chain-of-command, through the doctors. One day I had a bunch of sick troops report to me on sick call, so I put them all on bed rest. Everybody on my sick call went on bed rest that day. The troops were thankful, even if they didn’t have the bug. The company immediately fell below 70 percent strength, and I had to notify the tank command.

They ordered me to rescind my medical orders, and I refused. “No training today. Period.” We were all exhausted. My friends were sick, it was really hot, and I was out of IVs and the aid station was too. I needed everybody to stop touching each other until I understood what was happening. 

I learned the power of compassion can stop the tanks from rolling, and nobody could stop me. War is unhealthy! Go to bed! It was a unique position to be in. Informing the command felt like I was grounding them and saying they couldn’t play with their friends. They whined and stomped their feet at me, like children in combat gear who needed a nap. There was talk of writing me up for mutiny and insubordination.

As the illness rampaged through the taskforce, my company stood out for being more operational than everybody else. I didn’t give the bug much chance to keep spreading in my circle — my war was different than theirs, but I won my battles. Everybody came home mostly healthy, and no missing pieces. I was acknowledged by both the doctor and the tank command for it later.

After that, I reenlisted and was sent to the Mother/Baby Ward in a hospital where I worked for a few years. I was one of very few male staff, and I learned so much. I got to tell a general, “Nobody outranks this baby. Is that clear? We all follow their orders from this point on. Here’s the standing orders…” It’s what I told everybody. It was an interesting experience to serve the mothers and newborns within the mostly male military.

And then, as a civilian, for seven years I worked in a locked dementia unit. Truly, a crucible for learning nonviolent combat. Because of the short memories of the combative people, it’s easy to try different strategies and tactics. Withdraw and reapproach in a different way.

And through transcribing, hearing stories from survivors of gangrape, genocides, residential schools, war atrocities, disruptive marketing campaigns, political schemes — I stumbled upon the words of Michael Nagler, and spelled it “non-violence” the first time I heard it.

Suddenly, there was a whole slate of words I’d never heard or typed before: ahimsa, restorative justice, third-party intervention. I also heard different behavioral theories and explanations of how some of my “abnormal experiences” actually work — plus names and histories I’d never heard before, like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khitmatgars. It helped me piece together how we all got into this predicament, and what I can do to help.

As my understanding of the definition of nonviolence kept growing, I realize it’s something the world really needs to understand better too. All of it. From my perspective, the language of nonviolence is an antidote to apply to all the pain and suffering, from within and throughout. 

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence

We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

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