COLUMBIA — Matt Aragon, 24, always wanted to be a Marine.
"My grandfather was in the Marines and fought in Okinawa," said Aragon, who has been living in Columbia for three years.
He was in high school when terrorists hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and he decided it was time to take action.
"I called a recruiter that day and signed myself up," he said.
He left June 25, 2002, for Camp Pendleton, which is 38 miles from downtown San Diego. During his two months at Camp Pendleton, Aragon learned the history of the Marine Corps, war tactics, weapon systems, radio usage and overall basic survival tips.
He also began to train and get into shape. A typical day consisted of waking up at 5 a.m., running with a lot of screaming and yelling involved, breakfast, drills, more running, classes, more screaming and yelling.
After Camp Pendleton, he spent a month and a half in infantry training and was told he would be leaving soon. He prepared his family and friends, made a will, and on Feb. 2, 2003, Aragon was shipped off to Kuwait for 10 months.
Aragon was then sent to the city of An Najaf in the southern part of Iraq to control crime in the city and protect the mayor.
"Women would come up to us with a child whose arm was blown off and ask what to do. I’d tell them to take their child to the hospital, and they’d tell me they couldn’t afford it," Aragon said.
Soldiers spent four-hour shifts on patrol with two- or three-hour breaks.
“I usually called my mom,” Aragon said. Other duties consisted of training the Iraqi police in order to further control crime in the city.
The Marines trained prison guards to help round up prisoners set free when the war began, he said.
One of his final duties in An Najaf was to attempt to take down Muqtada al-Sadr, a political leader and commander, but was rejected at the last minute for more preparation.
On Oct. 2, 2003, Aragon flew back to Kuwait, where he was stationed for a week and took classes to learn about reentry back home.
“We call them the ‘Don’t Beat Your Wife’ classes because they’re preparing us for all the stuff we might come home to, like the possibility of wives being unfaithful while their husbands are overseas,” he said.
After Kuwait, Aragon flew to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., and cleaned out his weapons. He was told he would become a squad leader and departed for Missouri.
He flew to St. Louis to see his family for the first time in more than 10 months and spent the next 20 days in Belle, visiting family and taking additional classes about readjustment until he returned once more to Twentynine Palms for squad training for the next assignment.
He spent the next 130 days training for his position and helping future Marines prepare for their coming journeys.
After the training was complete, his superiors hinted at his returning overseas. Then, something happened that changed everything.
“A friend was playing with a PVC pipe, which hit a Gatorade bottle. It broke, hit me in the eye and got stuck in my eyeball,” Aragon said.
He spent the next month and a half indoors waiting for his eye to heal. He continued to teach classes as the Marines tried to figure out what to do about his situation.
“I made it through Iraq without getting taken out or shot,” Aragon said. “And then I get taken out by a Gatorade bottle.”
Aragon returned to Belle on Christmas Eve of 2004 and received his honorable discharge on Feb. 1, 2005. He now has a glass eye.
He spent the next six months with his parents “pouting,” he said, and started dating his current girlfriend, Amanda Fernandez, 20.
Aragon decided to move to Columbia, where he got a job at Midway USA and began to attend classes at Moberly. After 18 months, he found himself having trouble sleeping, among other symptoms.
He tried counseling but refused to take any medication. After much deliberation, he decided to take a year off from school but continued working.
His girlfriend moved to Columbia in June, and they now live together. Aragon plans to go back to school in the fall.
He still worries, though, because his sister is in the military overseas. But he says he is getting better with time.
“I’m proud of my sister,” Aragon said. “And I’m proud of anyone who serves.”
Overall, he does not regret his experiences.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Aragon said. “Being in the Marine Corps was the best time of my life.”