By DAVID JOSEPH DEL GRANDE
Matthew Evan Andrew Bourque left Basrah, Iraq almost a decade ago, but his war-time experience on the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway has not yet left him.
He sustained an injury that should have ended his legacy, but an optimistic philosophy fuels this veteran’s resolve.
Bourque says he always wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives.
He also has a strong interest in the medical field, and understood the benefits of joining the military in regards to building personal character and earning a degree.
That’s why he has made Pima Community College his latest stop along his tempestuous journey.
At 30-years-old, Bourque is part of a generation in the United States that were inspired to become soldiers directly after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks.
“I kinda saw it as a chance to start my life in a positive direction,” Bourque says about becoming a soldier. “And then I saw 9/11, and I was like ‘maybe I can do some good?’”
Bourque was born in Clearwater Beach, Fla. but spent most of his childhood in Louisiana. His father was an engineer for the United States Air Force, and was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base located a few miles from Bossier City, La.
Bourque describes himself as a well-adjusted, popular and out-going person up until the time of his active duty. Just a normal young man, that can look back and smile at a happy childhood.
That Tuesday morning on Sept. 11, 2001 also started off normal. But, the plume of dust, smoke and death that erupted as the Twin Towers crumbled to the New York City streets brought the fog of war that may never lift and many lives will not return to any sense of normalcy.
Bourque chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy, and went to Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill. for basic training. He was subsequently stationed at a military hospital in Basrah, Iraq’s second-largest city after Baghdad.
Basrah can arguably be described as one of the hottest cities in the world, with its daily summer temperatures reaching at least 113 degrees Fahrenheit. The vivid memories cancel a slight grin on Bourque’s face as he remembers his two years there.
“I can feel the heat from the sun, I can feel the heat coming off the walls,” Bourque says. “Just the heat and the air, it’s crazy. I feel sometimes like I’m still there,” he says.
Bourque remains haunted by the sensation of the Persian Gulf sands against his face, and also the feeling of trepidation from engaging in guerrilla warfare.
He found it nearly impossible discerning between an everyday Iraqi citizen and an armed insurgent.
“The level of tension and anxiety was very high,” Bourque says.
And in December 2003, during a routine intel-reconnaissance mission, Bourque sustained a gunshot wound to the chest.
The 7.62 caliber round fired from an AK-47 pierced his armor-plated vest, practically destroying his left lung, and became lodged in his back.
Four days later, Bourque woke up in the ICU at a military hospital. He was unaware what had happened or how much time passed until the doctor explained the situation.
Bourque had lost most of his left lung and was told that he had been resuscitated upon arrival at the emergency room.
A sense of concern, fear and confusion flooded his mind.
“First I thought about my teammates,” Bourque says. “And I was thinking, ‘Why me? Why did I live?’”
Bourque said his doctors did not know how or why he had survived.
And being a medic himself, Bourque saw no logical explanation why soldiers he had served with had passed after sustaining less severe combat wounds. Survivor’s guilt is one of the weights he is fighting to lift during his ongoing recovery.
Bourque is also progressively coming to terms with PTSD, and is actively seeking help at Southern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System in Tucson. He says his doctors painted a bleak picture about the time and overall effectiveness therapy will have.
“But I’m not looking at that,” Bourque said. “I’m looking at the brighter side.”
Bourque returned to Pima in the fall with plans to transfer to the University of Arizona to earn his degree in Business Administration.
His goal is to work for SAVAHCS and help make veteran services more efficient and comprehensive.
Stephanie Ann Rogers, support technician for Disabled Student Resources at Downtown Campus, has developed a great rapport with Bourque since August.
Rogers says at first Bourque was a little apprehensive about asking for help. But as he began to open-up and grow, so did their friendship.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” Rogers says. “He’s got a sweet personality and disposition and everything.”
Rogers says Veterans Day will certainly hold more meaning, and significance to her this year.
And she has more than enough faith in Bourque’s ability if his begins to falter.
“I do have a better understanding of our vets,” Rogers says. “And any vet really, not just ours.”
Regardless of the grave repercussions, Bourque doesn’t regret the decision to become a soldier. Pride beams from his eyes when he talks about serving his country.
But he remains disillusioned by the fact he can count on one hand the number of people who have thanked him for the sacrifice. Bourque is setting education as his new cornerstone.
And as his life continues, he exercises a new found liberty pursuing happiness through selflessness.
“I wanna make something of myself,” Bourque says. “I wanna enjoy life.”