BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In the pitch blackness and pre-dawn stillness, his booming voice alone was enough to send several dozen new trainees into a frenzied scramble from the comfort of their bunks. His scowl was enough to keep those trainees frozen into a formation of stone figures.
Tech. Sgt. Matthew Zien was one of those military training instructors who seemed to have boundless energy, rousing new troops long before dawn and taking care of issues long after sunset. He was a textbook MTI.
That’s what would make it hard to believe that Zien would be struggling with his life less than a year after turning in his campaign hat, dealing with an unforeseen illness that would not only threaten his life, but send him into the depths of despair that would put that MTI strength to the ultimate test.
Zien was stationed in Thule, Greenland, when, after a routine dental exam, his health took a slow decline, beginning with an irregular heartbeat, and would eventually turn into pneumonia and finally find him at death’s door, hooked up to a life support system, not expected to live.
“I was unable to walk more than seven or eight steps without having to stop to catch my breath,” Zien said. “All of my joints began hurting and my legs felt like they were on fire. My taste buds went completely sour and I completely lost my appetite.”
Despite a steady decline in health, with recurring bouts of pneumonia, and swelling of his legs and feet, Zien went ahead with a scheduled leave to Alabama, where, within 12 hours of his arrival, was in the emergency room. After the ER nurse hooked Zien to an EKG, she was startled with the printout, summoning doctors to look at the baffling results.
Doctors told Zien his heart was massively enlarged, and that he was suffering from a severe case of bacterial endocarditis, edema, severe aortic insufficiency, severe mitral valve regurgitation, pneumonia and congestive heart failure. “My heart was working at 25 percent efficiency, and because it was beating so fast and so hard, for so long, it actually grew muscle,” Zien said.
He was then taken to a hospital that specialized in cardiac surgery, where, during an operation that would include 42 hours of induced coma, he would have two heart valves replaced and a type of vegetation cleared from around his heart. During the operation, his vital organs began to shut down in a domino effect. With family and friends gathered round, the prognosis for the former MTI was bleak.
Zien would survive the operations and begin a slow road to recovery. But according to Zien, the surgery was the easy part. “The recovery from this has been overwhelmingly humbling. Physically, I have recovered extremely fast and I’ve maintained a strong, optimistic and positive attitude. The real battle with this recovery has been psychological.”
As he recovered, his mind began to play tricks on him and he began to hear the ticking of the metal replacement valves in his heart, something he compares to Edgar Alan Poe’s “the Tell-Tale Heart.” Zien said he would lie in bed at night and listen to the valves in his heart and every tick would tell him that he had somehow failed.
“My nightmares were unbelievable,” he said. “I dreamt of my death thousands of times, and it seemed that every time I would close my eyes I would die. It completely consumed me.”
But the nail that would drive the normally optimistic and positive Zien to contemplate suicide would be one that affected what he held closest to his heart – his children.
“I got a letter in the mail requesting full legal and sole custody of my kids,” Zien said. “My kids are my life. I was put on this planet to be a father. I know this for a fact. My thought process was whether or not I would rather have my kids not know who I was.”
At that point Zien said he had several plans in mind to take his own life. He hated his heart to the point where he decided to stop taking his heart medication, jumped on his bike and rode 85 miles to inflict as much damage as he could. He became dizzy, crashed, but survived. It was then he decided it was time for help.
“I had to admit to myself that I was powerless. I knew for a fact that nobody’s going to fix it but me. It couldn’t be anybody else. It had to be me…but I couldn’t do it.”
It was then that Zien dug deep into his MTI roots, reinforcing the lessons he taught his trainees. He said that when things began to get negative, he would visualize MTI Zien pushing him to stay on course and not quit. He began setting goals, some as simple as getting out of bed each morning without a negative thought. Then it was to make coffee each morning, again without any type of negativity involved.
“The good thing about action is that it created momentum, which in turn, enabled further action,” he said.
The momentum in Zien’s case would come in the form of the Wounded Warrior program. Although he didn’t see himself as a wounded warrior, Zien was invited to join them for a sports camp, and feels that the encounter has changed his life.
“It’s because of the Air Force Wounded Warrior program that I am where I am,” Zien said. “Even just knowing those wounded warriors on a personal level has lifted me up to a point I can’t imagine.”
Set to be medically retired in the months ahead, Zien is giving back, using his story of resiliency to influence other Airmen, as well as others in the community. Even though he is still considered a patient at the Buckley AFB clinic, he has become more of a mentor than a victim.
“With everything he’s been through, his positivity is really inspiring,” said Airman 1st Class Hannah Metz, a medical technician with the 460th Medical Group.
“He makes me want to teach other Airmen," added Airman 1st Class Christina Miller, an aerospace medical services apprentice.
Today Zien said that when he wakes up each morning, he places his hand over his heart and embraces who he is. He moves forward with a daily goal of having a good day and making an impact on some else’s life. “It’s amazing how much it has helped me to help other people. Creating this environment I need to be in has actually helped me to get better.”