Vision of a Warrior: Interview with Retired USAF Major Gail Matthews

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This photo was taken in 1992, with Matthews’ father on the left and Matthews on the right.

For Veterans Day I conducted an interview with my friend Retired US Air Force Major Gail Matthews, who served from 1977 to 1994 and was involved in Desert Storm Operations from 1991 to 1994. While serving, she lived in three states and four foreign countries — and was subject to attack five times in three of those countries. A current student at Foothill College, she previously graduated from the college in 1974 with her associate’s degree in Biology and later acquired her bachelor’s in Biology, minoring in Psychology, and received her Master’s in Management & Supervision.

Gail is currently attending Foothill in pursuit of two Associate’s Degrees, in Psychology and Studio Arts. “I want to do volunteer work on art therapy, and in order to do that, I am planning to get either [a] Master’s or PhD in art therapy.” She is also featured in an upcoming documentary, Visions of Warriors, which discusses how phototherapy has helped with her post-traumatic stress from military service.

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When asked about why she joined the force, Gail painted a picture of the “radical and open-minded” Silicon Valley during the late 60s and early 70s: “free drugs, free sex, free speech, freely abounded…” She intentionally avoided the bulk of those social movements  but was encouraged by many instructors to attend peace rallies at Stanford and Berkeley against Vietnam War.

When I went to airborne training and got my arm ripped out of socket […] I just had my twenty second birthday, right before Veterans Day.”

— Gail Matthews

The rallies left her with the impression that “the attendees were a bunch of sheep,” she admits, “[so after four years] I thought I should see the other side for [another] four years. Little did I know this decision would change the nature of the gender discrimination from emotional anguishes to physical pains.”

“When was this— the transfer from emotional to physical?”

“When I went to airborne training and got my arm ripped out of socket.”

“How old were you?”

“I just had my twenty second birthday, right before Veterans Day.”

Matthews was injured during airborne training after a male trainee who was supposed to hold her by the waist instead caused her to be injured by improperly handling her during the exercise. While there was no official evidence Matthews and various witnesses believe that it was done intentionally, motivated by her being one of few women in training.

When it came time to operate, doctors at the hospital did an inadequate job the first time; and had to sit on Matthews’ back and arm to once again remove it from its socket — which would create intense spinal problems. Even the second surgery was poorly executed permanently affecting the mobility of her left arm, despite the same doctors performing an adequate operation on a man with the same injury.

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When I came into the service as a communications officer, there was less than one percent women in the merged military.”

— Gail Matthews

“The military changed radically […] they really didn’t do well with the merging of the genders. … The ‘in-groups’ were all the men, and the women were an ‘out-group.’ When I came into the service as a communications officer, there was less than one percent women in the merged military… For my first five assignments, stationed at different places, I was the first female they’d ever had in a year. And here’s the trick: I was the boss. It made it difficult — it made it very lonely.”

 

“I am sorry you had to go through that,” I said.

“Oh no! Let me tell you, I’ve had some great experiences … Every two to three years I changed jobs. Every job was completely different … My job has been amazing!”

This photo was taken in 1992, with Matthews’ father on the left and Matthews on the right.

 

“This photo was taken about 25 years ago… My dad was a naval aviator, and he is wearing the last uniform he had when he left the service in 1958. I also feel proud to note that even though we were in different services, we have one ribbon in common — The National Defense Service Medal — he got it for World War II and Korea, and I got it for the Gulf War.”

As a possible result of her father’s service in Korea and his exposure to certain chemicals, Gail has been suffering from Klippel-Feil Syndrome — wherein some vertebra in her neck have been fused together. “Some of my personality is based on that syndrome, as my brain structure was changed as a result.”

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Yeah, but people don’t understand what military service is anymore.”

— Gail Matthews

“How do you feel about Veterans Day itself? Does it have a meaning for you?”

“Yes. It does for me. But I could ask you that question: Does Veterans Day —” Gail paused briefly, as I am a second-year international student from China, “I mean, you’re here — does it have any meaning for you?…I think if we ask the student body, they don’t think it’s very important —”

“I think it is very important for me,” I interrupted her, “because you’re a good friend of mine, and you’re a veteran.”

“Yeah, but people don’t understand what military services is anymore … and probably, what most of the student body would say is, ‘we get a day off!’” she laughed. “And they don’t understand — the flag is significant to me. I feel a strong connection to my country.”

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Gail also commented on the Veterans’ Mural that Foothill is working on:

“I feel honored that they’re doing the mural. It is very nice to have the mural in the courtyard of the Veterans Center. I just would hope for the painting of the mural that they respect and honor the people that served by using the correct uniform and the correct grooming standards.”