By Amanda Sullivan, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs OfficeJune 9, 2022
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Life wasn’t always about uniforms and new recruits for 1st Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Reed. There was a day when most who know him now wouldn’t recognize him.
Reed spent the first decade of his life surrounded by fields and woods in the small, rural town of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, before moving to the larger city of York, Pennsylvania.
As he moved into his teenage years, Reed’s life took a turn for the rebellious.
“Throughout middle school and high school, I didn’t want to listen to anybody, and that eventually turned into drugs — and I started caring less about school,” he said. “I fell in with the wrong crowd and rebelled against authority.”
Reed had dropped out of high school and was dealing with substance abuse while working nights at a local business, when he came home from work and watched the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. Two days later, inspired by a military recruitment advertisement, Reed and a friend found their way to an Army recruiting office.
“And here I am,” he said.
He began Basic Combat Training on Sept. 2, 2002, at Fort Benning, Georgia. The change was a culture shock, and Reed said he struggled to adapt for several reasons — and was certainly not what people would consider the ideal candidate for military service.
“I signed up for the Army knowing it was going to be hard, but I was shocked by everything that was happening around me,” he said. “I was not a good trainee at all. I showed up ragged and weighing only 137 pounds. I wasn’t strong — and I had a huge problem with authority.”
At first, Reed thought he had made a mistake and was destined to fail.
“I remember making the call back home and writing letters saying this probably isn’t good — I’m probably not going to do well with it,” he said.
What led to Reed’s success in BCT was his drill sergeants, who he still remembers 20 years later.
“Drill Sergeant Hernandez was a big dude who would play loud music when he pulled into the parking lot in the morning,” Reed recalled. “You did not want to make him angry — you wanted to do right, so you didn’t disappoint him. He had an uncanny ability to connect with people.”
Drill Sergeant Nelson, by contrast, was very quiet and never yelled or screamed, according to Reed. The patches on Nelson’s uniform spoke loud enough, even though the trainees had no idea what they meant.
“He was a short, small and unassuming guy, but he had all this stuff on his uniform that nobody else had,” Reed said. “He had this thing on the left sleeve of his battle dress uniform that said (Ranger Tab) above the patch, and this gun with a wreath going around it (Combat Infantry Badge), and this torch with a flame (Pathfinder Badge), and this parachute looking thing (Parachutist Badge) with some stuff on top of it, but nobody knew what any of it meant because he was the only one who looked like that.”
Reed said the extra effort from his drill sergeants mattered a lot.
“You got the feeling we were not just a number to them — they cared about us as individuals,” he said. “Those drill sergeants had the ability to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Talk to me, you’re not doing well.’”
Reed went on to serve five combat tours as an Army Infantryman — three in Iraq, and two in Afghanistan — experiences that he said changed how he saw the world around him.
“You come to the Army, and you straighten out — you go on deployments and come home, and your whole attitude changes,” he said. “I used to be so embarrassed talking about my life prior to the Army, and I am still wholly embarrassed by some of the things I did. I probably still apologize to my mother every time I see her.”
He said the embarrassment prevented him from telling his story, until a friend offered him a new perspective.
“They pointed out that there are probably a ton of trainees who were in the same boat as I was,” he said. “They said, ‘You should talk about this.’”
Today, as the highest-ranking enlisted Soldier in the battalion, he is responsible for more than 90 drill sergeants and up to 1,000 trainees at any given time. The impression left on him by his drill sergeants two decades ago can still be found in the way he leads the Soldiers in his charge.
One of those Soldiers is Company A 1st Sgt. Andrew Brashear, who said he has already learned lessons from Reed he will take with him throughout his career.
“He has taught me that if something happens, it’s done and over with, so we need to start finding the way forward — there’s no need to dwell on the past,” Brashear said.
Reed said he shares his backstory with the NCOs in his battalion with the hope it will give them a new perspective on how to engage with trainees.
“This isn’t summer camp, and it should be difficult, but there’s this line where they need to realize when a trainee is pushed to the point where they are going to completely shut down and break,” he said. “I want drill sergeants to be hard, and I want them to be firm, but the good drill sergeants are the ones who know that the second word in their title is the word ‘sergeant.’”
Drill sergeants are responsible and required to enforce standards and set the right tone for trainees, Reed said, but they must know when to metaphorically take that hat off, so they can have a conversation, one human being to another.
“Any of the trainees in my companies now could be a future command sergeant major, and their drill sergeant may think they are the worst human being, or the worst trainee in their platoon right now,” he said. “I was the worst trainee in my platoon, too. You have no idea how a person is going to pan out if you just invest a little bit of energy and patience into them.”
For Reed, the Army gave him an escape, and he said everyone comes to the Army for their own reasons — and none of them are bad.
“Some are the people wanting to do the noble thing by fighting for their country — and that’s great for the Army — but there’s a large percentage of folks who come from the kind of background that has them running toward or away from something and looking for a better life,” he said. “The Army completely altered the path of my life. If I hadn’t joined the Army, I would probably be working a random job and scraping by to pay rent and eat — if I wasn’t dead or in jail, because that is the outcome of most of the people I hung out with.”
For those struggling with adapting to the Army, Reed encouraged them not to give up, and to remember why they initially joined.
“Keep your head up and remember why you joined,” he said. “Focus on whatever led you here in the first place — embrace it, take it one day at a time and don’t quit.”