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Milwaukee, Wis., Marine survives blast, gunshot wounds to defeat insurgent attack

23 Feb 2006 | Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Zahn

For some Marines, strenuous hours of training is simply mind over matter.  In combat, one Marine proved its Matter over mind.

Sgt. John T. Matter, a 26-year-old squad leader from Milwaukee, Wis., survived a blast from an improvised explosive device and two separate gunshot wounds to run a wounded Marine to safety and lead his Marines out of the kill zone here Dec. 12. 

Recently, he and the Marines he fought alongside spoke of the day Matter put it in his mind he wouldn’t die.

Marines from Company E, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, serving with Regimental Combat Team 8, were performing a reconnaissance patrol in Fallujah to find a patrol base where they could support the upcoming elections.

“We arrived at an abandoned hospital and Sgt. Matter and I examined the building,” explained 2nd Lt. Jeffery M. Frederick, a 24-year-old from Detroit who is Matter’s platoon commander. “We determined that it would not be a good choice ... we were ready to leave the building. I told Sgt. Matter to start pushing his guys outside.”

Matter told his first fire team, led by Lance Cpl. Jeffrey M. Roberts, a 20-year-old from Destin, Fla., to move out of the building.  Just as Roberts moved his team of Marines, one pointed out five teenagers pointing in their direction and running away. 

“He also reported that all the shops on the street had closed,” Roberts recalled. “I stepped outside and pointed the kids out to Sgt. Matter who was right behind me.”

It was then an improvised explosive device blew up just 15 feet away.

Shrapnel and dust filled the air. Two of the Marines were immediately struck by fragments of the bomb, Matter in the face, and Lance Cpl. John W. Conlee in the face and upper thighs.

The situation rapidly grew worse.  Gunfire poured in through the smoke.

“Right after the explosion we started getting hosed down with automatic weapons fire from across the street,” Matter explained.  “I went back inside to get a better grasp on the situation. The first fire team was pinned down by fire and couldn’t get back inside.”

With Marines trapped outside, Matter knew he had to do something.  He looked to his M-203 grenade launcher.

“I stepped out to shoot a round from my M-203 at the building where the fire was coming from,” he said. “I got the round off but as I was shooting I got shot in the leg.”

Despite the wound, Matter was able to see his grenade launched against the attackers had effect.

“It worked though,” he said.  “Doing that gave the guys time to get back inside. Once we had everybody back inside we started to lay down some heavy suppressive fire to gain fire superiority. I moved to take another ‘203 shot and I got shot again, this time in the neck.”

The bullets in his leg and neck didn’t deter Matter at all. He continued to provide suppressing fire along with the second fire team led by Cpl. Joshua J. Frazier, 23-year-old from Spotsylvania, Va.

Frazier admitted he was in a sense of awe of Matter, even as rounds zipped past and Marines fought to repel their attackers.

“It was a relief to see him still going,” Frazier said. “I saw him get shot in the leg but he stayed on his feet and stayed in the fight.”

Once everyone was back in the house the squad regrouped and assessed casualties.

“I was behind Sgt. Matter when the IED went off,” said 1st Lt. James G. King, the 26-year-old company executive officer from Washington D.C. “I got knocked down, saw one guy firing at us and took him down. I saw one Marine – Lance Cpl. Michael D. Copley – was hit so I dragged him into the house and began performing first aid on him. After doing that I grabbed Matter and treated his various injuries.”

Matter’s cool head continued to prevail amongst the confusion and lingering threats.

“At some point we all noticed that Copley had gotten shot in the back of the leg and was bleeding pretty bad,” Matter said.  “We didn’t know where the bullet had gone after it hit him. I knew that we had to move Copley to the medevac vehicles that had arrived.”

Roberts explained he tried to pull Copley’s trousers back up before they rushed him to the waiting vehicles, but he couldn’t lift up Copley’s body weight.  Matter stepped in, ignoring his own wounds and told him to throw Copley over his shoulders.

“Instead of having a humvee pull up in front of the building and have them at greater risk of being shot, I picked Copley up over my shoulders and ran with him to the medevac vehicles,” Matter said. “I figured I had a better chance because I was a smaller target.”

Matter rejoined his squad to find reinforcements arrived.  A quick-reaction force of Combined Anti-Armor Team and Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team joined in the fight.  Matter was ready to fight his way out with his Marines until his first sergeant ordered him to the medevac vehicles. 

“I’ll be honest at that point I was hurting and while I still could have fought, I needed medical treatment pretty bad myself,” he said.

Frederick credited Matter’s calm and stoic reactions throughout the firefight to keeping the Marines alive.

“He was doing exactly what was expected,” Frederick said.  “He took care of all the small details so that I could coordinate our medevac and QRF.  He kept me updated throughout the fight. Without his leadership that day things could have been a lot worse.”

Matter was more humble and saved his praise for his squad.

“Those guys did not hesitate at all,” he said.  “They reacted exactly the way they had been trained and did what they had to do.  The insurgents started the fight and we definitely finished it.”

Two months later, Matter has recovered from his wounds, as has Lance Cpl. Conlee. Lance Cpl. Copley has returned to the United States and is undergoing extensive physical therapy. The firefight remains vivid in the Marines’ minds, and is a constant reminder that all the work invested in training is well worth it.

“Without even realizing it we all relied on our training,” Roberts said. “We were doing combat reloads, bounding maneuvers and pointing out targets to each other.”

Sgt Matter and Lance Cpl. Conlee continue to serve with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in Iraq.