Back in July 2008, Matthew Gallagher's popular blog Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal was shut down by the military brass after seven months of highly literate and very real posts about the war in Iraq. The plug was pulled after he failed to get the proper vetting for a post titled "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage," in which he wrote candidly about a conversation with a superior officer, a breach of military protocol.
Three years after the flap caused by the shutdown, MTV News spoke to Gallagher — who turned his blog into the memoir "Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War" last year — in the days leading up to the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. We wanted to know how the events of that day changed Gallagher, 28, who currently works as the senior writing manager at the non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and what he's learned since.
"On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman in college at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and I actually slept through the attacks," said Gallagher, who had stayed up late the night before playing video games. His roommate, who was from the New York area, woke him up to tell him that he needed to watch the news. "Very groggily, I remember asking him, 'What's going on? Is the world ending?' Looking back on it, in many ways the world as we knew it, the world as I knew it, was ending."
He watched as the second of the Twin Towers fell, just two weeks after he'd joined his school's ROTC program, mostly as a way to pay for his studies. Like most 18-year-olds, Gallagher said he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life, and didn't consider himself a gung-ho, "G.I. Joe" type of guy, instead seeing himself as perhaps an Army lawyer.
"Like a lot of 18-year-old kids, I figured I'd figure it out," he said. "9/11 changed that drastically." Four years later, he was commissioned into the Army Cavalry and, by age 24 he was stationed in Hawaii and getting ready to ship off to the war in Iraq as part of President George W. Bush's "surge" tactic.
Always interested in writing, Gallagher launched the blog in November 2007, just before deployment as a way to "keep some part of myself" and, as its title indicates, as a kind of inside joke against the insurgents. "They're kind of just travel writings, what I'm seeing, what I'm hearing, what I'm experiencing. What my men are doing," he said. "Funny, sad, angry."
For the first six months, he said, the writing was positively received both in and out of the military as a means of putting a face to the soldiers on the front lines. That is, until the fateful blog of June 2008, when the soldier posted about a heated, expletive-filled dressing down he got from his battalion commander about a proposed promotion that Gallagher said he didn't want, because it would have taken him away from his men.
"I did the same thing I did the previous six months, I went back to my hooch and I wrote about it," he said. "Then I posted it. Very naively thinking it wouldn't get back to him, and of course we all know that's not how the Internet works. I look back on it now and it was a poor decision, a petulant decision made by a young platoon leader who was exhausted both mentally and physically."
Though there were some debates back home about freedom of speech issues, the blog was summarily shut down by his superiors. With nine months left on his 15-month tour, Gallagher was eventually promoted to captain and then switched to an infantry battalion, where he said he strove to serve out his tour as honorably as he could.
After coming home in February 2009, Gallagher made his transition out of the active-duty military and began positing his future. "It was never really an ambition of mine initially [to write a non-fiction memoir]," he said. "I wanted to be a writer, but I kind of wanted to be a fiction writer some day, like 20-25 years down the line. I never thought I'd write a non-fiction memoir about Iraq."
But he realized that the shutdown of his blog had created a furor that gained way more attention than he could have imagined. In fact, a story in the Washington Post drew a lot of readers to the cached blog entries, leading to a number of calls from literary agents about turning it into a book.
As a then 18-year-old whose life was profoundly changed by 9/11, Gallagher said the attacks served as a "maturity moment" during a crossroads in his life. "On a macro level, all of a sudden I realized this world is a very serious place, terrible things can happen," he said. "Evil people do exist, as much as I want to ironically laugh at the simplicity of that statement."
Deciding to join the Army and deploy was part of his journey, one Gallagher suspects was a small tile in a much larger mosaic of life-changing choices. "On a bigger level, 9/11 was a crystallizing moment for my generation ... the bubble popped. We were like, 'Whoa, this is what the real world is like, it's not all fun and games.' "
Combined with the subsequent global economic crisis and stagnant unemployment numbers, Gallagher said 9/11 initially showed us that you have to have resolve to carry on. "Through the tragedy and all the loss that people across the country, but especially in New York and D.C. felt ... humanity went on. We can honor them and remember them by moving forward."
As part of the "I Will" campaign to commemorate the 9/11 attacks as a national day of service and remembrance, we asked Gallagher how he'll mark the anniversary on Sunday.
"This September 11, I will remember my fallen friends, 1st Lt. Mark Daily and Capt. David Schultz, for their sacrifice, their humor and their service," he said.
What will you do to remember 9/11? Share your thoughts below, and visit 911day.org to upload your video response.