Still bearing the physical and emotional scars from an attack that killed four fellow soldiers in Afghanistan on Sept. 16, 2012, Spc. David Matakaiongo, now prefers to stay inside his home with wife Laverna and son Zion.
DEAN J. KOEPFLER — Staff photographer
More than a year back from war, Spc. David Matakaiongo can’t shed the feeling that he’s still in Afghanistan.
He plays with his toddler son at home on Joint Base Lewis-McChord and remembers the Afghan girl whose body fell apart in his arms as he lifted her right after a bomb struck her.
The once gregarious islander from Tonga now prefers to stay inside the smallest room of his house, the better to protect his wife and child.
He walks with a cane inscribed with the names of the four young soldiers who died next to him on the night traitors in the Afghan police attacked them. The four are never far from his thoughts.
“I always consider myself the lucky guy, the one that came back home,” he said.
On Sept. 16, 2012, Matakaiongo survived the single deadliest attack against Lewis-McChord soldiers in the past four years. He was serving under the flag of the 1st Squadron, 14th Regiment, a Stryker unit nearing the end of its fourth combat deployment since 2003.
Today, a metal rod supports his leg where his right femur used to be. He walks with a limp. His limbs and torso are purpled with scars from Taliban bullets.
He lives with post-traumatic stress that causes him to withdraw from public places. He endures constant pain that requires around-the-clock medication.
For Matakaiongo, coming home from a deadly betrayal was just the beginning of his battle to heal.
“I have to appreciate the fact that I made it,” the 27-year-old veteran said. “The guys that died, I always think, ‘Man if they were the one that came back, they’re probably going to do a better job than me. So what is my excuse, being out here, being alive and stuff, and not willing to push myself?’ ”
An Afghan flag flies above the Afghan National Army portion of Combat Outpost Mizan in Zabul Province, Afghanistan, March 27, 2012. The section for American forces is immediately adjacent and visible toward the rear.
David Matakaiongo said two prayers after the Afghan police officers he thought were his allies turned their AK-47 rifles on him and five other soldiers in a desolate corner of Zabul province.
One prayer was for him.
“If there’s a place for me in heaven, please save it for me.”
One was for wife Laverna and baby son Zion, whom he thought he’d never see again.
“Please take care of my family.”
He looked around and saw a horrible sight.
Four of his fellow soldiers lay dead or dying in the mountaintop dugout in southeast Afghanistan where they’d been watching for enemy movements. One fellow survivor, who was alive because he played dead, frantically called in a report on the radio.
The fallen included Pfc. Jon Townsend, one of Matakaiongo’s closest friends in uniform. They’d bonded over their Christian faith and shared stories about their families back home.
The shooters also killed Sgt. Sapuro Nena, a respected cavalry scout who, like Matakaiongo, hailed from the South Pacific; Pfc. Genaro Bedoy, who had gone home to Texas for his daughter’s birth two months before his death; and Spc. Joshua Nelson, a communications specialist with a wife back home in North Carolina.
At 1 a.m., six Afghan police mounted the sandbags that surrounded their dugout and sprayed it with bullets.
It was over in less than 15 seconds. The killers melted into the darkness, pausing only to execute a seventh Afghan police officer who did not join in the slaughter, according to a declassified Army investigation.
Matakaiongo took three shots to his right thigh, one to his left leg, one to his ribs and another to his left arm.
“I’m going to die,” he thought to himself.
The shots awoke a team of Lewis-McChord soldiers sleeping about a quarter mile away at another outpost. They moved slowly to the scene, walking carefully in the dark to stay concealed from the shooters they couldn’t see but suspected were still nearby.
Matakaiongo’s last surviving partner, Spc. Devin Wallace, collected himself in the bloody pit. He wrapped tourniquets on both of Matakaiongo’s legs to buy time for the wounded soldier.
David and Laverna Matakaiongo married in November 2011, a month before he left for his deployment to Afghanistan.
Three years earlier, back in Tonga, David Matakaiongo had been at a personal crossroads.
He’d earned a degree in theology from a Christian college in Papua New Guinea and returned home to Tonga where he thought he’d take up counseling. It was a slow-paced life in which he enjoyed good friends and competitive sports, such as rugby.
In school, he met the woman he knew he wanted to marry. They clicked when he visited Laverna’s hometown in Australia on his college breaks. They were drawn to each other’s warm personalities.
“If you put him in a room with his family, he’s the one making everyone laugh,” Laverna said. “In my family, I’m that person, too.”
But Matakaiongo didn’t see a life for them in the islands. He went to Los Angeles, following an older brother who had served in the U.S. Navy. Matakaiongo took his brother’s advice and joined the military to learn how to live in the country he wanted to call home.
“This is a good way to find a life,” Matakaiongo remembered thinking. “Start with the military. You find discipline and you build a life.”
He enlisted in 2011 and was on his way to Afghanistan with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division by the end of the year.
Matakaiongo became a dad on the eve of his deployment. Back home in Sydney, Laverna gave birth to Zion in October 2011. She stayed there and waited for David’s return from Afghanistan to start their life together in the states.
They saw each other once more, in the spring of 2012, during Matakaiongo’s midtour leave. He loved spending time with Laverna, Zion and their relatives in Tonga, but he felt out of place.
Matakaiongo wondered if he was seeing his loved ones for the last time.
He had witnessed deadly explosions that wounded friends and killed civilians.
He understood the growing dangers of Afghan soldiers and police shooting their American partners. More than 50 Western service members died in such attacks in 2012, the year of Matakaiongo’s deployment.
One of the year’s first insider killings took place a month after Matakaiongo hit the ground in Zabul province. On Jan. 8, 2012, an Afghan shot and killed Pfc. Dustin Napier, an Alaska-based soldier. Napier died at the same forward base that would become the headquarters for Matakaiongo’s cavalry squadron from Lewis-McChord.
“We knew what they were capable of,” Matakaiongo said.
In September, his commander sent him to a combat outpost in Zabul called Mizan, which the Army wanted to hand over to Afghan forces.
Enemy fighters started shelling the position with mortars 10 to 12 times a night, anticipating the withdrawal of American forces. It was a small outpost, so the shells represented a serious threat to the few dozen soldiers stationed there.
Matakaiongo and five others were picked for a 48-hour assignment watching the terrain that commanders suspected insurgents used to launch their mortars. They hiked up to the observation point on a peak a couple of miles from the Mizan outpost.
Matakaiongo didn’t like the looks he was getting from the Afghan police who joined them at the lookout.
“I’m looking at these guys and thinking, ‘You’re going to shoot me,’ ” he said.