Hope for the Heroes


Matt Gordon served his nation and now serves up healing for fellow veterans

A raging storm brought Matt Gordon to East Tennessee. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma unleashed her fury on the Gulf Coast of Florida near Matt’s home in Naples. As residents evacuated, the Gordons—Matt, his wife, Mindy, and their two young children—fled northward. Hotels were filled through Georgia, so they kept driving until they reached Maryville, where they stayed for a month—which would become a permanent relocation.

“We found a real sense of community here,” says Matt, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps whose years of active and reserve service (2007-21) included a tour in Afghanistan (2010-11). “We loved the homey feel and the slower pace. With kids who were about 3 and a newborn, we wanted to get back to an old-school feeling, where families walk to the park, get outside and enjoy nature. And the Knoxville area has a huge, active veteran population.”

The circumstances of the Matt’s first taste of East Tennessee are especially fitting in light of his devotion to helping veterans escape a raging storm of a different sort, the inner hurricane that wreaks havoc as they face the gale-force gusts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges resulting from their wartime service.

“So many veterans find themselves in despair, thinking of self-harm, with suicidal ideation or planning—it’s a very dark place,” Matt says. “It’s vital to be a light in the darkness for them, to talk, listen, empathize, to be there when they are at their lowest. That is a powerful and hopeful thing to do for another human being.”

Since moving to the area, Matt has worked for or alongside a number of community organizations dedicated to providing material, health, emotional, and mental support to retired military personnel. The single biggest impact he has made was in organizing a USA Patriots amputee soft-ball game at Smokies Stadium in 2022, inviting area vets, and assembling a Veterans Expo of multiple nonprofits that offer help and hope.

“My ultimate goal,” he says, “is to bring veterans together for events that include food and knowledge,and that provide opportunities to check in and see how they’re doing. Isolation is the enemy’s playground, so any opportunity we get to bring veterans out is valuable.”

Matt now works as COO of Quest Legacy, which develops coaching curriculum for youth sports. He’s aboard member for the East Tennessee-based nonprofit The Quest Movement, as well as the lead instructor for the suicide-prevention programs it offers.

‘9/11 Changed Everything’

Born on Christmas Day of 1984, Matt grew up in Wisconsin, looked up to and admired his brother who was five years older, and attended a military boarding school. The academy instilled in him a desire to honor his nation by serving in some way—a desire that only deepened in the aftermath of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

“Certainly, 9/11 changed everything for everyone in America,” Matt reflects. A few months short of his 17th birthday, he experienced what he terms “a stark calling.”

“Being raised in the ’90s, we had learned a lot about the glory days of Desert Storm, victory in Iraq, Kuwait, a lot of red, white, and blue. Because of our nation’s lack of proximity, far away from the fighting, we almost felt like we were invincible . . . and then we were not. When 9/11 happened, watching the destruction, buildings falling and people dying, took a toll on all of us. Personally, I knew I wanted to take action and make a tangible difference.”

After high school, Matt earned a degree from the University of Tampa in 2003, and the next year enlisted in officer candidate school (OCS) in the Marine Corps. He was trained in artillery, which encompassed heavy cannons and guided missiles.

In Afghanistan, he oversaw the use of guided munitions to combat the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). “We worked with our assets on the ground—the observers and long-distance reconnaissance units. They would advise us as to a location of a combatant placing an IED. We would confirm them via UAV assets [unmanned aircraft vehicles] and, once it was clear they were legitimate targets, we would take them out.”

Brothers in Arms

One of the most meaningful aspects of Matt’s touring Afghanistan was the presence of his elder brother, Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Gordon, who had joined the USMC in 1998, served three years, enrolled in college, but then—spurred on by the September 11 attacks—rejoined the Marines and been deployed to Afghanistan at the same time Matt was there.

Photo courtesy of Matt Gordon.

“My brother’s team identified potential threats, observing the enemy planting IEDs, and called for strikes,” Matt says of Joseph. “That connection was special. It was absolutely an honor for me to serve with him. His commitment to the nation and his service had inspired me, and he had mentored me growing up.”

As for other memorable moments during his tour, Matt mentions the capture of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011—although he wasn’t directly involved. “We operated on the Pakistani border in southern Afghanistan, but I tell people, ‘I found out about bin Laden the same way you did: on CNN,’” he quips.

Matt also emerged with a deep appreciation for his fellow warriors. “The men and women who showed up every day committed to excellence was, and still is, incredible. Balancing wartime responsibilities while trying to preserve things at home is a challenging task regardless of age, but especially for younger marines.”

What’s more, his time in the war led Matt to the mantle that he would later take up. “It was at this time I noticed ‘cracks’ in the mental and spiritual foundation,” he recalls. “Hence why suicide prevention is a priority in my life.”

Home, But Still Battling

In a twist of irony, when Matt’s tour ended, he arrived back in the U.S. on—wait for it—September 11, 2011. “I transitioned into the Marine reserves, was appointed as a suicide-prevention instructor, and began a 10-plus-year journey of training, intervention, and counseling,” he says.

That journey included stops in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida. “I was a police officer trained in crisis intervention and a reservist at the ANGLICO [4th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company in West Palm Beach], where I led the suicide-prevention training.”

Matt eventually served as executive officer of a reserve unit in Chattanooga. He would fly from Florida, land in Knoxville, drive to Chattanooga, and repeat. Having achieved the rank of major after serving as a battery commander, he transitioned out of the military.

Soon after he became a full-time resident of the Knoxville area in 2019, Matt, who has a background in personal finance, worked in real estate as a veterans advocate. “The VA home loan is a huge asset for veterans. For those who had trouble getting a loan for a home, I would help them with financial counseling so they could secure mortgages.”

Photo courtesy of Matt Gordon.

Home ownership is a sometimes-overlooked key to financial growth and also a life-saving mental health measure for retired military personnel, he says. “There is a direct correlation between purposeful activity and the rate of self-harm and suicide. While it is stressful to own and keep up a house, we find that veterans who have that purpose and responsibility develop stronger coping skills and life habits than they would have otherwise.”

One of Matt’s tasks was also to create events for veterans, which naturally led to his growing engagement with vet-related nonprofits and initiatives—including Team Red White and Blue, Operation MRV(Meals Ready for Veterans), Hike to Remember “22,” the aforementioned softball event, and more.

In many ways, though, Matt feels as if he’s just getting started—and he would love to see others catch that spirit of service as well.

“I want to encourage people in the community: You are the right person to help. Sometimes we think we should let a mental health professional handle it, or call 911, orwait for someone more qualified todo it. You’re the person to intervene, regardless of whether you’re aveteran or not. Don’t be afraid to lean in and be there for somebody who is hurting.”

He also extends an invitation to “join our movement,” literally, The Quest Movement and its training. “If we can saturate our community with people who are equipped, empowered, and ready to bring hope—through a conversation, a hug, a show of empathy, a referral for more assistance—using the tactics we teach, then they will be able to help anybody, veterans and others. This is a truly life-changing and life-saving opportunity.”

In January, Matt spearheaded 2024’s A Hike to Remember “22” along a Knoxville greenway to and from 5.11 Tactical store in Farragut. The event draws area veterans for good food, an out-and-back hike, and much-needed fellowship with fellow vets. This year’s theme was “Carry the Burden of Others.”

Like other aspects of Matt’s journey—from the attack on America in 2001, to fighting alongside his brother in the war, to a hurricane pummeling the Florida coast in 2017—the wording of the event’s theme feels poetically fitting.

After all, Matt has dedicated his life to carrying the burden of others, to doing all he can to lighten it, and to inviting his fellow East Tennesseans into the battle with him.

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