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Faces of CNM: Matthew Pham

One soldier’s journey from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the Labs of Electrical Trades
Faces of CNM: Matthew Pham
Matthew Pham

Aug 07, 2018

Matthew Pham had lots of hard days during his two deployments to Afghanistan with the Army. But there was one that stood out as his worst.

It was 2013, he was on his first tour, and stationed in the Paktika Province. That day, his convoy was moving through a valley when two bombs—one on each side—exploded and the convoy started taking fire from multiple directions, pinning them on the valley floor. The soldiers fought back for hours, then called in air support. A U.S. bomber flew close by and carefully dropped a 2,000-pound bomb, giving the convoy a chance to escape.

Rolling back, the convoy thought they were home free. But not soon after, Matthew’s Humvee drove over an improvised explosive device (IED) that blew the engine up and trapped them once again. A tow truck came out, and three days after the mission started, Matthew and his team finally limped into base.

“That was 72 hours of non-stop fun,” Matthew says sarcastically.

Fast forward five years and today, Matthew, 27, is a long way from the battlefields of Afghanistan. He’s currently studying for a degree in Electrical Trades and trying to decide if he wants to pursue a Photovoltaic or Programmable Logic Controls concentration. He’s also excelling in the program. Coca-Cola just awarded him with its 2018 Military Leaders of Promise Scholar award that comes with a $1,000 scholarship.

Matthew finds this funny because he hated school growing up. He joined the Army because he wanted to give back to the United States—which relocated his family here from Vietnam after his dad served in the South Vietnamese Army—but also because he didn’t want to go to college after just barely finishing high school.

CNM became a way forward after a dark time in his life post-deployment. After that first tour, he spent another nine months in Afghanistan as a bomb dog handler where he and his dog tried to alert troops to IEDs before they went off and caused injuries. Finally back home—after years of being pummeled by bombs, or trying to find them—he was diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and deemed 100-percent disabled.

His nightmares were so bad he’d stay up for three days straight to avoid sleep. After spending years guessing if a suicide bomber might be in a crowd, he couldn’t walk into a public place and stop himself from sizing people up. At restaurants, he always had to face the door so he could see the people walking in. Some days were okay. Others were not.

“When it would hit me, it would hit me like a ton of bricks,” Matthew says. “I was losing myself.”

To cope, he started drinking. But he also started seeing a therapist every week. Talking it out helped. Matthew had been married during his deployments, but back home he and his wife had a daughter, which also motivated him to find a path forward. Finally, he knew the G.I. Bill would pay for school and he wanted to see if school would help him get his mind off his problems, focus his attention on the future, and help him support his family.  

He and his brother—who also served—thought about becoming mechanics, but decided that industry was too crowded. Then they came across the Electrical Trades program and decided to go for it.

“Everyone needs light,” Matthew jokes.

In class, the electrical curriculum came easy and Matthew realized school might be for him. That, and the skills he’d developed in the military helped him be a better student.

“I definitely learned patience in the military, so even when something didn’t immediately click at CNM, I could work my way through it,” he says. “I also developed a sense of pride that made me want to be first, and that carried over to school. If I wasn’t first in my class, then I felt like I was last.”

At CNM, Matthew reached out to the Veterans Resource Center, which helped him with the logistics of school, but also created a safe space for him on campus where he could be around people who understood his experiences.

“They ensured I was on the right path,” he says.

Of course Matthew still struggles. His PTSD isn’t gone, but it’s better. He still sees a therapist, but less frequently. When asked where he wants to see himself in five years, he knows he’ll still be coping, but also hopes to have a high-paying job in the electrical trades, and hopes that he can be in a position to help other vets find their way—maybe even by pushing them to come back to school.

“With programs like the G.I. Bill, I tell my friends that they need to use it before they lose it,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Yes, you have to work through school, but once you’re here, the benefits are obvious. With a degree you’re going to make more money and you’re going to find ways to improve your life.’”