Matthew Bohling was 22 years young on Sept. 5, 2005, when the Humvee military vehicle he was riding in on patrol outside of Ramadi, Iraq, drove over an improvised explosive device that was exploded at just the right fateful time.
Bohling was not just killed in the explosion that ripped through that rough and tough vehicle, the earthly shell his soul lived inside was shredded to the point that military officials cringed as his mother insisted she at least see the side of his fact to verify the body in the bag did indeed belong to her son.
This is not a pretty story to tell on a day in which the barbecue grill sees a lot of hot action, Frisbees are thrown for kids and puppies and many of us begin making our plans for the rest of the summer.
Yet, the story of young men and women such as Bohling – who to the best of my knowledge remains the only “locally grown Chugiak-Eagle River” military service member to die in Iraq – is the reason why Americans get an official day off from work the last Monday in May.
The writing of this tribute piece is not to guilt anyone from enjoying this day.
Even the parents of then young Bohling – Charles and Sandra Bohling of Eagle River – have over the years many times told this writer that they only wish for their son’s legacy to be remembered briefly on this day; honored just a bit before people engage in all of the freedoms this day represents that their son so willingly defended as a member of the U.S. Army.
Put aside our God-given rights as Americans with freedom of speech as to whether or not American troops should have been in Iraq. Debate for or against it. But do not let that keep each of us from remembering and honoring the people such as Bohling who stood in harm’s way to ensure we could peacefully sit around the campfire or the picnic table and do so.
For readers that have made it this far in this article, you have surmised this writer not only has – but unashamedly maintains – a well-honed bias of admiration and support for the U.S. military and will always hold the memory of Matthew Bohling near and dear.
I first met Matthew in 1999 when my family moved to Chugiak after my husband, Bob, retired from 20 years of honorable active duty service in the United States Coast Guard. Our family began to attend what was then the Birchwood Baptist Church. Matthew, then still in high school and active in the church youth group when he immediately befriended my oldest child – stepson Josh – whose was at an awkward time in life being a freshman in high school and new to the community. Matthew made Josh feel welcome. Josh has never forgotten Matthew’s kindness and as Josh went on to later serve in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2005 – the same year that Matthew died – he never forgot the example set.
I am not best buds with Charles and Sandra Bohling. We are friends on social media. Running in to them in town is always a pleasure. Knowing they hold the same faith near and dear that there is a Father in Heaven who welcomed their son Home gives us a kinship that does not require constant contact to be an unbreakable bond. Every end of May; every start of September, they are on my heart and mind.
For the first several years post Matthew’s death, I watched – silently cheering for them – as they participated in many Memorial Day events and were honored on a regular basis for their sacrifice. It was an honor to be a witness to this outpouring of community support.
To some extent, as time marches on, new faces take their places.
There has been some lament that Matthew has been forgotten.
His immediate family – his parents and siblings – have indeed opted to live out more of this weekend’s activities such as camping and fishing rather than always participating in the showcase of victims and their families. It is indeed a respectful choice they have made. It is a choice that honors many of the reasons why Matthew served.
I will never forget Matthew Bohling. Not only have I pledged to his family to honor his memory and to be forever grateful for his life and sacrifice, but as a patriot and one equipped with a pen (figuratively speaking anyway), it is my duty to do what can be done to keep his memory in the minds of the people of Chugiak-Eagle River.
Sounds sort of arrogantly noble, huh?
Perhaps some. Here is the back story that supports it: A deeply-engrained appreciation for this nation’s military from years of decorating the graves of my uncles that served from my mother’s family, childhood years listening to the stories of war-torn World War II Holland that my father’s family endured and being in love with a man who put so much on the line for this nation. It comes from watching the tears of anguish shed as the Bohling family allowed me – and only me in the capacity of a reporter – into their very personal hell immediately in the aftermath of Matthew’s death. Mostly it comes from the trust they gave to this flawed human being; this writer that puts sentences together in hopes that the reading of them makes a difference in someone’s understanding of the world that encircles us. When given that level of access to such private pain, there is a responsibility to honor and guard that knowledge that goes on well past the headline in the newspaper and the edition of the newspaper that lines the bird cage just a few days later. There is a responsibility to protect that memory; to pass it on to others.
So here goes:
Matthew was an Alaska boy through and through.
He loved to fish and hunt. He loved to camp. He loved to shoot guns – at targets and at animals. He was a natural with a firearm in his hand and it showed in his marksmanship qualifications in the military. He was a regular at the Birchwood Recreation and Shooting Sports complex. He was an active member of the Single Action Shooter Society and the Alaska 49ers. He loved to ride four-wheelers, he belted out any song he could when doing karaoke and he danced until his feet were sore and then even some more past that. He loved other people. He loved his Savior – Jesus Christ – who believed died on a cross to pay for his sins and provide Matthew with a way to be with a righteous God for all of eternity. He was fascinated with all period of military history and could have swept those types of categories on any television game show had he ever been a contestant.
He had a quick smile that was infectious and sincere.
The last time I saw that smile, I knew it was forced.
It was in August of 2005 – all too unknowingly close to his death.
Matthew was back home in Eagle River on furlough. He came to a reception I had been asked to prepare for another local who had married out of state but wanted to give everyone back home the chance to meet her new life partner. I was flying around the reception hall like a bat out of hell making sure all was just right. Matthew, in his gentle way, put his hand on my elbow and said, “Hey, Mrs. Armstrong.”
When I looked in his eyes, I knew immediately that the young man standing before me had seen things that the high schooler I first met never should have been exposed to. He was hurting. The service he so willingly gave to the country he loved was creating a steep emotional price.
I stopped in my tracks and asked him how he was doing. He told me the things that dedicated service people do: “I am honored to serve my country,” and “I have seen parts of the world I never thought I would,” and “It is so awesome to spend time with the children in Iraq and give them toys or a ball to play with.”
He asked about Josh. I was thrilled to tell Matthew that Josh was joining the Marine Corps.
How I wish I had just said to him: “Hey, Matt, let’s go outside and talk some more.” I should have walked away from the reception to give him even more time; to give him more of what every service member needs: a listening ear and a smile that says the one simple word they all long to hear: “thanks.”
A memorial visitation for Matthew was held at what then had become the Birchwood Community Church on the N. Birchwood Loop Road in Chugiak on Sept. 13, 2005, and a funeral service followed on the next day, Sept. 14.
I was on the N. Eagle River bridge exit to photograph the long, long funeral procession from Birchwood to the Fort Richardson National Cemetery. It was an impressive site that rivaled the funeral process of Chris Kyle, the hero of American Sniper.
At Fort Richardson just as he had just done for the funeral service, Rev. Brad Rud – the senior past of the church – provided leadership for Matthew’s family and friends as he said the things a pastor says in these circumstances all the while suffering himself from the loss of a young man he had watched grow up. It had to be gut and heart-wrenching for him. The following people served as pallbearers for Matthew’s casket: Joshua Bohling, Philip Dalton, Jeff Harry, Sandy Nelson, Joshua Tudor and Justin Wetzler.
Everything was done just right for Matthew. I can still hear the echo of the gun salute when I visit the national cemetery.
On Memorial Day, my family will visit the grave of Matthew Bohling who served in B Company 1/29th Infantry and A Company 2/69th Armor, 3rd Infantry Division. As much as I adore seeing Charles and Sandra and covet the hugs they give, I really truly hope that this Monday is not one of those days. Instead, I hope they are off doing what so many others are: Camping, roasting hamburgers and playing with their grandchildren.
If souls in Heaven do look down to Earth, U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew Bohling most certainly is smiling at the fact that his family has found a way to honor him yet move on to the life he served to protect. He is watching the progress of the cook-out, he is willing a ball in to the hands of a youngster just learning to catch and he is dreaming of landing a big king salmon.
Thanks, Matt. Cannot wait to see you again.