Growing up in the Boston area, Matt Malone was a self-described troubled youth. In trouble with the law. A college GPA of 0.7. In his own words, “a shit head.”
Malone is now the superintendent of Fall River Public Schools in Massachusetts. He oversees 16 schools, 10,400 students and 1,800 staff members. He also previously served as the Massachusetts Secretary of Education under Gov. Deval L. Patrick.
How did a troubled kid turn into a leader shaping the next generation? A deployment as a Marine during Operation Desert Storm.
Road to war
A 17-year-old Malone joined the Marine Corps in 1988 under the Delayed Entry Program. His parents said they would only sign the paperwork to let him join if he agreed to go to college.
By August 1990, the Marine Corps activated the 25th Marine Regiment out of Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. Among those activated was Malone, who just finished up an auspicious first year of college at Suffolk University in Boston.
His college start was so bad Malone said the dean placed him on double secret probation – a reference to the 1978 American college film “Animal House.” Before starting his second year, he activated. His unit shipped out to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with 2nd Marine Division. By December 1990, he was in Saudi Arabia, attached to 1st Marine Division. He described his feelings as “excitement, scared, feeling invincible and excited.”
As a field radio operator, Malone served with the command group for a forward unit. Outside of special operators, Malone’s unit was one of the most forward. He was a part of Task Force Papa Bear. The Task Force conducted two deliberate breaches of Iraqi defenses to secure a breach-head line. This allowed further offensive operations.
Malone moved throughout the war. Task Force Grizzly. Task Force Ripper. Al Jubail. Manifa Bay. And then Al Khafji, the first major ground engagement during the war. Referred to as “the night of 1,000 tanks,” three Iraqi tank battalions attacked into Saudi Arabia. Allied forces drove the Iraqis back, but they lost 12 Marines during the battle.
Soon after, Marines started clearing enemy prisoners of war, detaining them and sending them to the rear.
During a three-month span, Malone was in the field, living in dug out holes. He lived in an oil field with a blackened sky and black rain from Iraqis setting fires to wells. Shells fired in the distance. He donned all his chemical protective gear, living in Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) 4 for days. The military-issued medication left him defecating frequently in plastic bags.
Despite serving on the front lines, Malone escaped unscathed without firing his weapon.
Following hostilities, Malone redeployed with his unit in May 1991. After demobilization and leave, he didn’t drill again until September.
Returning to the classroom, the 21-year-old war Veteran re-entered Suffolk as a completely different student.
“I got serious,” he said. “The war was the trigger for me to get serious about my life.”
Despite a break in college, Malone completed his bachelor of science degree in history, finishing in 1993. He started out as a wrestling coach, then earned his first break.
Steve Leonard was a middle school principal at Dr. Martin Luther King K-8 School in Dorchester. Like Malone, Leonard was also a Marine war Veteran, serving in Vietnam. Leonard offered Malone his first job – a substitute position.
“He took a risk on me and I never let him down,” Malone said.
Soon after starting, Malone’s career took off. He completed a master’s degree at Boston College, becoming a Donovan Urban Teaching Scholar. Then he became a high school social studies teacher. By 1999, Malone was an assistant principal. He earned a doctorate in 2002. By 2005, he was a school superintendent. He then served two other superintendent jobs in between serving as the state Secretary of Education.
A fellow Marine Veteran who served with Malone saw his change to the man he is today.
“Combat is a life-changing experience,” said Matt Ching, himself a Desert Storm radio operator. “It helped him [Malone] mature as a person, gave him perspective and gave him direction.”
Ching, who works with Veterans as a national service officer for the commonwealth of Massachusetts, said Malone is a relatable person, whether interacting with Veterans or teachers.
“He finds a common bond with people.”
Malone said there’s a parallel between the Marine Corps and his current role.
“There’s a lot of analogy and also metaphor between what we do in education and what service is in the Marine Corps,” he said. “Service is what the common dominator is.”
The superintendent cited several areas the two share in common. Those include commitment to service and others, focusing on the mission, and setting objectives and working toward them.
The Marine Veteran said there’s another area of his life that puts service first. Malone, who just turned 50, said he uses the VA Boston Healthcare System for all his needs because “they understand service.”
Malone said he still carries forward those Marine Corps lessons.
“The troops eat first,” he said. “I learned that in the Marine Corps.”
Reflecting on his career. Malone said he didn’t join the military because he wanted to serve. He joined because he wanted to be a MarinIt’s that ethos of teamwork that he takes from the Marine Corps, carrying that forward in his current profession.
In his office, Malone has a photo of him in the desert. He describes it as “the worst day of my life as far as being miserable.” Stuck out in the field, sick with diarrhea, cold, wet and in the middle of the war with a box of grenades beside him. The photo is a reminder whenever he thinks he’s having a bad day.
“When stuff goes bad in my life, I can handle this,” he said. “I’ve handled worse. At least it’s not that.”
If you’re a Veteran interested in becoming a teacher, check out these links:
GI Bill – https://benefits.va.gov/gibill/
Troops to Teacher website – https://proudtoserveagain.com/
Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment – https://www.va.gov/careers-employment/vocational-rehabilitation/programs/long-term-services/