Ephraim Mattos – The Humanitarian Warrior
Ephraim Mattos was terrified. Shock coursed through him as the enormity of the moment collided with weeks of unspeakable stress. For a moment the shock almost overwhelmed him. But as the Mosul street exploded with bullets and mortars exploded behind him, Ephraim and 4 others ran behind the Iraqi Army tank, stumbling over the bodies of Iraqis ISIS had just slaughtered.
It was a Fool’s mission, perhaps, but Ephraim Mattos and the others were not about to sit back and watch as the few survivors died a slow death among the bodies of their loved ones.
Ephraim was a long way from his Wisconsin home. Most people his age were graduating college, but he’d always known that wasn’t his path. He’d always known his path would be unconventional, according to how he was raised.
It started as a half-joke as Ephraim completed his 10th-grade essay assignment about dream vacations. Ephraim had written that for his vacation, he’d be driving a tank in Iraq and fighting terrorists. In his book, City of Death, Ephraim looks back on that essay, noting “…the absurdity had all but become a reality.”
In fact, nothing about Ephraim’s path fit the conventional map he’d been raised to navigate by.
In his devout Baptist community, expectations were that he’d embark on missionary work. He’d planned to become a missionary in Africa. As much as Ephraim embraced the values and teachings of the Bible, he’d chafed at the stringent rules of his church. When a high school teacher engaged him in a discussion about Man’s free will, Ephraim’s entire world opened up before him in a fresh light.
Until that moment, he’d never considered the notion that he could serve others in any capacity other than those he’d been raised to pursue. Now he had new insight and began indulging his inner voice until its whisper became a scream loud enough to drown out all the voices of his community who told him he was wrong to set his sights on becoming a Navy SEAL.
Pushing through one emotional and physical challenge after another, Ephraim fulfilled his own vision of graduating BUDS just after his 20th birthday. Less than a decade after writing that essay, Ephraim was in Afghanistan fighting terrorists.
Upon returning home from that deployment, Ephraim struggled to adjust. It’s not easy to extract oneself from the memories of combat. In Afghanistan, he’d almost been forced to shoot two young girls ISIS had strapped suicide vests to. At home, his niece’s playful shrieks sent him reaching for his rifle.
Ephraim Mattos was no longer in combat but he was still a Navy SEAL.
Training continued so that they would maintain peak condition. But in one instance, diving equipment for Ephraim and several others malfunctioned. He came within moments of dying.
Much as he’d begun feeling his childhood teachings were not his specific calling, Ephraim began struggling with the operational confines of the highly regimented SEALS. He also struggled to come to terms with the magnitude of his combat experiences. Seeking help, he asked his doctor to refer him to a psychologist.
When his doctor attempted to maneuver him into the office of a psychiatrist and medication, instead, Ephraim took charge of his own healing. He read powerful books and began exploring alternative methods for providing critical humanitarian relief to those who needed it most. Shortly after the dive-training incident, Ephraim watched the film 13 Hours. He left with renewed anger and frustration for, like the men in Benghazi he’d signed up to fight – not stand down while others fought. He was sick of the 90% training, 5% waiting, and 5% fighting ratio.
It was time, he knew, to find an alternate avenue to fulfill his calling.
He wanted to help the people least likely to be helped by conventional humanitarian or missionary work. He wanted to help the innocent people caught in the crossfires of combat zones.
“I want to be on the frontlines,” he says, “going into places where other people can’t go to do things other people can’t do.”
Ephraim’s brother is enmeshed in the humanitarian community, and told him about an organization called the Free Burma Rangers, (FBR) a “is a multi-ethnic humanitarian service movement working to bring help, hope and love to people in the conflict zones of Burma, Iraq, and Sudan.”
Founded by former Special Forces Officer David Eubanks, this group of hard-core humanitarians seemed like the perfect fit. Following his gut, Ephraim flew to Thailand and spent a few days with David Eubanks. That dose of humanitarian work in the midst of such a horrendous humanitarian crisis was enough for Ephraim to know he’d found the outlet for him to be of his highest service to others.
It wasn’t they typical application process to be selected for the FBR, but David Eubanks saw enough of Ephraim to give him the opportunity.
“We’re going to Iraq next week,” he told Ephraim. “You’re welcome to join us. “
Ephraim laughs at the picture David painted for him – It is not a paid position. FBR is strictly volunteer. Ephraim would have to buy his own ticket to Iraq. He’s been helping people in the most dangerous areas of that country, but he wasn’t guaranteed to have a gun. Or, if he was lucky enough to be given a weapon one day – and even if it worked – he wasn’t guaranteed to have a weapon the following day.
It’s crazy. He was a Navy SEAL, trained with the best equipment. Now he was invited to risk his own life – on his own dime- with a group of people he’d never met, in a country that wasn’t his, without the might of the United States military. But what sounds crazy to others sounds like optimum performance to Ephraim. In fact, he says, those conditions are precisely what makes the FBR so good. It’s a group of people who are 100% committed to their mission and are willing to sacrifice so greatly to achieve it.
There’s no one else he’d rather do such work alongside than people like that – people he knows are not in it for the money, not going to take cover when the bullets fly.
Within a week he’d sold all his belongings and had his boots down in Iraq.
Technically he was on vacation time. That’s a much more pleasant phrase than “terminal leave,” the proper term for this time off before he would officially transition from the Navy SEALS to civilian life – especially considering how he was using this time. Ephraim spent the final days of “vacation” in the streets of Iraq, alongside tanks, fighting terrorists. He spent his first weeks as a civilian doing the same thing.
The FBR operate outside of the media spotlight. A Burmese videographer captures their experiences on film as a means of documenting the human rights and humanitarian issues. An occasional journalist appears to get a picture that meets their outlet’s narrative and disappears back from whence they came.
Were it not for a video of Ephraim Mattos being shot, that’s now gone viral, it’s likely most of us would never have heard of them.
After weeks of bloodshed, heartache, loss, salvation, and countless near-death encounters, Ephraim was at his limit. Body, mind, and soul were greatly fatigued and almost broken. He’d witnessed so much of the very worst of humanity that even living among the very best of humanity was now almost not enough to push him forward.
This particular rescue mission was very likely a suicide mission. But David, his good friend and “the best combat leader I’ve ever served under,” was going in. And there was no way in hell anyone was going to let him go alone.
“We knew we had to do something. We knew we had to get those kids out.”
So, at peace with his decision, Ephraim pushed his terror aside and gave everything he could to rescue the 3 children they’d seen still alive, foraging for water and food among the bodies, and the two men they’d glimpsed holding on among them.
By the time they miraculously made it through the bullets and mortars, and over and around the piles of bodies, two of the three children had succumbed to heat and exhaustion. They could not be saved. But the third, a little girl, was swooped up into David’s arms while Ephraim and the others did their best to rescue the two men.
The rest of the details remain a blur to Ephraim Mattos.
He remembers getting shot, and not being surprised by that. He remembers the swirl of dust and the roaring of the Iraqi tank as it nearly crushed him. He remembers the pain rushing in and the sight of the young girl between his feet as he tied a tourniquet around his leg. Her face had been blown off, and he wondered if this was the daughter of the sobbing parents he’d encountered earlier as they fled, wailing about seeing their children gunned down right before them.
Momentarily lost in the memory, Ephraim snaps back to the moment as he laughingly shares the story of texting his mother form the ambulance as he was being evacuated to a field hospital. As much as his face clouds over at the memories of the suffering and loss, it lights up when talking of his mother – “the ultimate Spartan Mother,” he calls her, who blinks away tears as she encourages her sons to go help those who need them.
“Don’t freak out,” he texted her. “I just got shot in the calf and I’m okay. Everything’s fine.”
The instant response came – “At least you didn’t get shot in the bull.” He can barely get the words out, he’s smiling so much as he says them.
Moments of lightness in the midst of so much carnage and suffering, are what helps sustain Ephraim and the other members of the FBR. He’s learned about himself and humanity and embraced love over hate even in spite of all he’s seen and experienced.
He returned home with a much different mindset than his first combat experience. This time, he also has the memories of extraordinary heroism and human love, like seeing a FBR volunteer shield Iraqis with his own body, and risk his life over and over to rescue ISIS defectors.
“Right now within our country,” he says,” we can’t get along for anything and we have so much in common. (And) that’s a soldier literally risking his life to go out there and save the enemy.”
Ephraim Mattos is a living lesson on courage, humanity, and resilience.
He learned to focus on the love of those behind him rather than the hatred of those before him. He explains, “When I went into battle I made the decision to fill my heart with love for the people who were standing behind me and not with hatred for the people who stood against me.”
Hatred, he knows, can destroy a person.
Ephraim’s insight into the turmoil of combat veterans – or anyone reeling from the aftermath of trauma- that threatens their very ability to greet each new day, is simple, and profound. He refers to it as a “moral injury” and is more than willing to share his approach to healing from that injury. He shares that insight in his book and in this podcast episode.
It’s easy for us to become swept up in the complexities and struggles – perceived and real – of everyday life. But in this country, Ephraim says, the opportunities and freedoms are not to be taken for granted. Rather, they should be valued and utilized.
The American Dream is different for everybody, but thanks to people like Ephraim, we are free to pursue it. As for Ephraim, when asked about his own American Dream he says this…My dream is that you can live your dream. – Ephriam Mattos Click To Tweet
*Ephraim has moved on from the Free Burma Rangers and continues his work as the East Asia Operations Manager for the Nazarene Fund. While he can’t discuss his specific work, he likens it to his time in Iraq.