This riveting story starts and ends with compassion. Matt Hatala was one solider who was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country. When he joined the Marine’s his family knew he was willing to risk his life in hope’s of making the world a better place.
Throughout his course of active duty he would go on to encounter an unfathomable set of events. They say on the battle field you are fighting for the person next to you. As Matt Hatala would go on to learn, he was fighting for so much more. But one relationship that was cultivated during his time on active duty would not only change his life forever but it would also save it…
Lost His Way
Matt Hatala had lost his way. Four years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps had originally filled him with pride. He had joined because he knew that the Marines were the best way for a man like himself to help people, to help his country. Yet as the months rolled by, each one blending painfully into another, he was beginning to have second thoughts.
Matt’s job in Afghanistan was to search for hidden explosives in the Helmand province. Each day, he faced death; Not just in the possibility that he might miss one of the secreted bombs, but also in the knowledge that all around him, enemy combatants wanted to end his life. He soon became numb to the idea of dying, but also numb to the idea of living, as well….
He knew that numbness was just a coping mechanism, that in order to survive he had to push past his feelings of mortality to get the job done. Nevertheless, the numbness was robbing him of his former focus and that was dangerous. Thankfully, one member of Matt’s platoon never lost focus.
Chaney was a militarily-trained, 90-pound black labrador retriever with a perfect attitude and a sixth sense when it came to sniffing out bombs. During Chaney’s own multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he helped to save thousands of lives by expertly sniffing out deadly IUDs. This time, Matt was Chaney’s handler…
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight for Matt and Chaney. Though they had met at dog training school in South Carolina, they didn’t initially form a bond. Not only that, but Chaney even outright refused to listen to Matt in the first few weeks. Eventually, though, the two began to understand and respect one another.
Keeping Them Sane
Chaney and Matt became as close as brothers-in-arms. The dog was an upbeat, enthusiastic delight and would help to keep the men sane during the seemingly-endless security patrols. For the next seven months, Chaney and the 14 Marines would trek an unbelievable 2,600 miles together on foot. It was a grueling task for both man and beast…
Over the course of the exhausting detail, Matt lost 52 pounds. Eventually, even Chaney began to feel the strain too. Sometimes, when they trekked through rocky terrain, Matt would have to carry the poor dog and the extra supplies he required. Still, Chaney returned the favor by being the best bomb dog in the service.
As soon as Chaney would catch a scent, he’d put his nose to the ground and wag his tail like crazy. Then he’d sniff out the perfect spot, making sure to keep far enough away while also indicating where the bomb was. He was good at what he did, but one night in 2011, his perfect record would be tested…
After a particularly long security watch, man and dog had gone to sleep at around 2 a.m. Three hours later, they were awakened by an explosion. Apparently, there had been secondary explosive devices right where they had checked. They rolled out with a squad of 10 men and started checking the Helmand Riverbank.
Mistakes were Made
Matt and Chaney thoroughly swept the left side of the area, but not the right side. He thought that the other Marines had checked that side. The remaining devices exploded when another group of Marines approached. It would cause devastating injuries to at least two other men. One lost his legs and another suffered a traumatic brain injury. It had been Matt’s fault…
After being called out on his mistake in front of his whole squad, Matt and Chaney were sent home: Matt to his parent’s house in Waverly, Iowa, and Chaney to a private company that trains explosive sniffing dogs in South Carolina. The dog would have to be sent back to Afghanistan after some supplementary training.
In 2011, Matt and his wife, Genna Schoneman, were both out of work. With no other options, they moved in with Matt’s parents. Matt tried to find work, but every position he applied for seemed meaningless. How could one compete with the danger and importance of his previous job? And even if one could compare, what if he screwed that up to?
The culture shock of his move home had affected Matt more profoundly than he had anticipated. Depression was taking over his every thought. Before long, he turned to drinking to try and fix his feelings of guilt and alienation from his wife and family. He started taking risks, speeding, drunk driving, even bar fights: anything that would bring the excitement back.
His wife had no idea how to help him. Then, in January of 2012, things took a turn for the worst. Matt’s parents had gone away to a funeral out of town, leaving he and his wife alone in the house. The two got drunk and partied with friends, but the next day, Matt hadn’t slept. He had come up with an ironclad solution to the meaningless in his life: ending it…
Alone with a Gun
Matt took out his handgun and his semiautomatic rifle and banished his wife from the house. With nowhere to turn, she began to contact his closest Marine buddies, his parents, her parents, and called 911. She mobilized the whole neighborhood to come and try to help. Matt sat in the house, crying his eyes out, when suddenly he got a call from an old Marine friend named Mark Johnson.
By the time Mark had finished talking, Matt had calmed down a bit. He stepped outside, carrying both guns, and got into his Chevy. Police followed as Matt headed to a local convenience store. Eventually, Matt ran into a police roadblack and got out of the car, they took away his guns and brought him to a nearby hospital. He didn’t resist. He knew he needed help…
Eventually, Matt traveled to St. Cloud, Minnesota, and underwent weeks of treatment for Post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse. Once healed, he headed back to Iowa to try and put his life back together. Yet, he still felt like no one understood him. There was someone out there who would, though: his old partner.
Matt had missed Chaney more than he’d missed anything else about his time in the service. He knew that the dog would soon be too old for bomb detection work and that if he played his cards right, he might be able to adopt him. It was a laborious process filled with nightmarish amounts of paperwork, but at last, after months of waiting, Matt was cleared: he was now Chaney’s new owner…
As he waited for Chaney’s impending arrival, Matt actually became involved with Retrieving Freedom, a charity with a facility in his hometown in Iowa. The group trains service dogs for not only military veterans but for children with autism as well. He started volunteering and soon found that the hopelessness, the meaninglessness of life had vanished. Matt Hatala had a purpose again.
Thanks for Your Service
When Chaney finally arrived, Matt was in tears. It was as if seeing his old friend again had taken all the sorrow and sadness of his past and just thrown it away. He would give Chaney the best life a dog could have and help train others to help men like himself to cope with civilian life: to save them the way that Chaney had saved him.