The following is the text message I sent to a phone in December, knowing that there would be no response.
It’s so hard to believe, but you and I are on similar levels. This shit happens and we still have to carry on with what we have. It sucks so much, but we both know that’s the truth.
I kind of hope they allow you to take your phone to the afterlife so you can read this message. On the contrary, I know we’d both agree that a society without these damn devices would be heavenly. There’s a lot that I want to say, but most importantly I’m so happy we both took the opportunity to connect when I was in Dallas for that golf tournament the end of October. Literally six weeks ago today we were having a blast just talking for hours about anything and everything. It wasn’t the easiest coordination and we easily could have said, “Nah, we’ll just catch up next time,” not knowing that there wouldn’t even be a next time. You never know, do you?
It’s times like that which I will remember forever. You taking the time out of your day to just sit and talk, or grab a bite — drinking Monkey Shoulder in your car outside while I was there for pre-deployment training is another one — or any of the evenings in Abilene, whether out in town, golf and sushi, or just at your house; these are all memories of one of the greatest friendships I’ve had.
I’ve always been a loner. I keep my circle very small. But I was honored to welcome you into that circle from the beginning. In a way, my circle has indeed gotten smaller. I’ve lost a great mentor, friend, supporter and all-around good person. But your voice will remain, guiding me with rationality and pushing me to challenge myself and do better. You never actually met my kids, but they’re better because you’ve made me better.
Maybe I’ll hike the goddamn Appalachians like a crazy mofo. Who knows. But whatever I’m doing, you’ll be there. Because you’re Matt Rossi. That is unless you’ve gone off the grid and taken off to some faraway land of Mordor without letting people know.
I returned to the desk in my office just after lunch on Monday, December 10th. I happened to log into Facebook, which I’d been experimentally avoiding for weeks, to find a message from just the night before.
Mike - have time for a phone call?
It’s about Matt Rossi.
I responded, telling my friend on the other end that I was on a plane Sunday night. I asked, “Everything okay?”
Matt Rossi died in a car accident yesterday.
Fucking for real, dude?
I mean, I know that’s not a joke but you know…
That hurts to read.”
It did hurt to read. Honestly it was unbelievable to me. Matt was one of my closest friends and mentors. We’d been acquainted as co-workers in the 39th Airlift Squadron — he was an E-6 career loadmaster when I arrived to Abilene as a fresh E-3 line load. I hardly knew what I was doing at the time and I thought TSgt Matt Rossi was a pretty intimidating force who’d find a way to disqualify me for not responding to checklist calls quick enough, or some other ridiculous, made-up discrepancy.
It wasn’t until my second deployment, in 2008, that I really got to know “Papa Rossi.” Deployments can be tough — long hours of grueling work in the heat, away from everything we typically take for granted when we’re at home — but you do have your crew and plenty of time to bond. Matt took it as an opportunity to mentor some of us younger guys. We learned about investments, shared music interests, and discovered books and authors that I continue to follow 12 years later, like Krakauer and Gaiman. This was also the first time that I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — a fascinating book to which I continue to return throughout my life. I never felt like Matt was judging me that I wasn’t already on his level. I think he appreciated that we were practically kids, yet we were open-minded and respectful enough to know we could learn from him.
Back in the office, I was a bit stunned. I sent a text to my wife telling her that I had some news. As it turned out, she’d just received the news from another mutual friend. I’d kept my complete composure, processing death as I normally do — I tend to not get emotional when we lose someone to the inevitable. When my phone rang, the first words from her were, “Are you okay?” I tried to respond, but my body could only inhale. Then, with the ultimate exhale of oxygen, came an equal amount of tears from the corners of my eyes. I don’t remember what my actual verbal response was to her. I felt that whatever feelings I was having could most effectively be directed to Matt’s phone. So I sent the message at the top of this post.
I tell this story as it’s the one year anniversary of Matt’s successful Appalachian Trail completion. I wanted to share something to honor that achievement. Keep in mind, Matt had just retired from one hell of an Air Force career and the first thing he chose to do was hike more than 2,000 miles to raise funds and help treat a young friend of his who lives with cerebral palsy. That alone is all you need to know to understand the kind of person Matt was. And when we met for lunch in Dallas in late October, we spent a lot of time discussing how we could keep Miles For Nolan alive longer, with more hikes around the country.
He was also the biggest supporter of the podcast. He listened to each episode, he donated through the Patreon to help sustain production costs, and he was planning a trip to San Antonio to visit and record another, more in-depth episode of the podcast.
Matt is a major driver in why the podcast is coming back. The addition of this blog and anything else that develops in my mission to help transitioning veterans can be attributed to his support. He loved the concept of just letting people share their stories in order to help others.
If you knew Matt, feel free to leave a comment about your fondest memories, or what he meant to you. If you did not know Matt, I hope you can still appreciate what you just read. Feel free to share this story with your friends and family using the social icons below. Everyone should have the opportunity to know who Matt Rossi was. If nothing else, use this as a reminder to get in touch with a friend this week. Talk to people. And listen. Please click the button below to listen to the 23-minute episode he and I recorded for The Boots Off Podcast last year. He called in from a Walmart just off the AT. So it goes.