I picked up Greg Matos’ Shattered Glass—The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard with a narrow purpose. I wanted to read about the December 2004 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I wanted to know what it felt like to be the Marine standing Post when five heavily armed terrorists stormed our compound, killing and wounding colleagues in the course of an hours-long siege. I wanted to know how it felt to be responsible for protecting scores of U.S. and foreign diplomatic personnel serving the United States at a time when anti-American sentiment had reached new heights, thanks to the invasion of Iraq and protracted insurgency that followed.
What I found, in the end, was a heartfelt, deeply personal narrative that delivers those intense insights, and so much more.
The memoir focuses on Matos’ six years as a Marine, and is peppered with the details of an upbringing that make him who he is today. He writes about his grandfather’s courage hunting whales off the coast of Portugal, his father’s love for winemaking and “Old Country” culture, and the strong influence of his sisters and mother on his respect for women. The anecdotes manage to be personal without being sentimental, and the telling never strays far from the main thread: Matos’ determination to be not just a Marine, but an exemplary Marine worthy of that storied service.
Matos acted on his conviction in the summer before 9/11. Then his country came under attack and moved to a war footing. Matos writes of his enlistment, “I was destined to be a Marine at this significant time in history.” That autumn, his college dorm room was festooned with the Code of Conduct, General Orders, Rifleman’s Creed and other documents outlining Marine Corps principles. “I was attracted to the idea that somehow the brainwashing, indoctrination, or whatever you want to call it, could be self-directed; that I could own my recruit training experience rather than be sideswiped by it.” Most of all, he writes, “I wanted the fire of boot camp to burn away any self-conceptions I had that couldn’t take the heat. I wanted to become a man in the hardest way possible.”
But service didn’t always offer the rewarding challenge he’d imagined, and he notes these disappointments with wry deprecation, as with the editorial process for typing up correspondence in Okinawa: “Take this back and un-fuck it,” his superior orders, certainly the most colorful use of the verb I’ve ever seen. He encounters dubious characters not worthy of their uniform because they are lazy, disrespectful of women, or generally lacking the intensity for which Marines are renowned.
The broader utility in Matos’ book, however, lies apart from his passion for perfection and inevitable disappointments when others fail to rise up. It can be found instead in the details of life inside a little-known but much-admired group of Marines who serve in Marine Security Guard detachments. Their mission: to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel around the world. Matos expresses some remorse at being transferred to the relative privilege of serving in air-conditioned comfort while his fellow Marines fight insurgents in Iraq’s bald desert heat. When friends back home first ask what he thinks of the men and women doing the fighting—and dying—in Iraq he responds, “We’re Marines, that’s what we do”. Eventually, though, the sentiment becomes: “They’re Marines, that’s what they do”. This guilt, and self-doubts arising from his action during the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, remain central to Matos’ tale.
His account of the attack goes beyond our shattered front door, our scorched Stars and Stripes, our bombed and smoldering Marine house. It goes beyond the heroism of three Marines crossing open ground under threat of fire to reach their weapons in the chancery. It goes beyond the young Sri Lankan guard who took out the lead attacker before he himself was shot dead. Matos’ account puts the attack in broader context, tying it to the insurgency in Iraq and the resulting Second Battle of Fallujah. That battle, which raged from November through the end of December 2004, resulted in the death of an estimated 2,000 insurgents and civilians, and more than a hundred Coalition forces. The battle likely inspired members of an insurgent group called the Fallujah Brigade to storm our compound and get their revenge by killing U.S. Marines stationed there. “My place in this big picture,” Matos writes, “came in early December when five men, who had been fighting my fellow Marines in Iraq, came knocking at my door in Jeddah…”
I read and re-read about the attack with a mix of horror and comfort. Horror, for the obvious reason of mortality. Comfort, for the reminder that as I hunkered beneath the visa counter, tallying the doors between myself and the murderous rampage taking place outside, it wasn’t the number of doors that mattered (by one count there were four; by another, only one). But at the time my dread stopped with the Marine I knew to be standing post, trained for this crisis to keep us safe. I survived thanks to Matos’ courage, and it was personal and important to me to understand his story. By some measures, it can be summed up by his Bronze Star citation, which reads: For heroic achievement while engaged in military action against al-Qaeda terrorists as a marine Embassy Guard…
The soul-searching Matos recounts in this memoir eventually leads him back to service. After earning a Master’s degree in Psychology from Rhode Island College and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, Matos came to serve as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, where he provides psychological services to Marines and sailors in North Carolina. As they follow the path to recovery, our Veterans deserve the full support of the Republic they served. And it’s heartening to know that someone as compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring as Greg Matos has returned to the fight and is working on their behalf.
Shattered Glass—The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard
By Greg Matos
Two Harbors Press, July 2011