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A Father's Guide: Courageous Conversations Become a Lesson for the Next Generation

Army veteran Mathius Carter reads his book, Instead of Sheep: A Soldier’s Way of Explaining PTSD to his Son, to his young son. Mathius wrote the book to better explain veteran PTSD to children.
Army veteran Mathius Carter reads his book, Instead of Sheep: A Soldier’s Way of Explaining PTSD to his Son, to his young son. Mathius wrote the book to better explain veteran PTSD to children.

It’s a packed house minutes before a Chicago Wolves hockey game. It’s Military Appreciation Night, and up against the glass, staring excitedly at the ice is a 3-year-old boy atop his dad’s shoulders. They’re both beaming with excitement over this bonding moment – a pregame show that a friend said would be so much fun to watch.

The lights dim, the laser show begins, the mascot dances, the crowd roars, and the fireworks boom, flash, and crackle.

“But when you see that white boom of the flash, of the trip flares, you close your eye and turn your head down, so that you will be ready to fire,” said Army veteran Mathius Carter. “And that’s what I did.”

Mathius had a panic attack, his son on his shoulders, in the middle of what was supposed to be a night full of smiles, laughter, and memories to last a lifetime. At the time, he thought it was his duty to shield his son from these moments – but standing there at the hockey game, son wrapped around him, he realized he needed help.

“If you ask my son, I am a superhero,” Mathius said. “He proudly tells people that he wants to be like me. When asked what I do for a living, he says, ‘My Daddy helps people.’ So, he wants to help people in the future … or be a professional wrestler. Those are his two career paths.”

But Mathius didn’t feel like the superhero his son saw every day. He was in a constant battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he was always on alert, thinking about other people and never about himself. After serving in the Army, he said he was living for his dog. When his son was born, he was living for his child.  

“I didn’t care about myself. It was apparent. I was 325 pounds, I was drinking, I was in unhealthy relationships … and then I had a heart attack,” said Mathius.

Mathius with his son at Rush University Medical Center Road Home Program.
Mathius received help for his PTSD symptoms through the Rush University Medical Center Road Home Program, which partners with Warrior Care Network.

It was just after Christmas. Mathius had been at the gym, even racing a Marine in the pool. He was working on himself, to get better for his son. But he ended up driving himself to the emergency room and sending his ex-wife a text: “Tell my son I love him.”

Mathius had a massive heart attack. He thought he was going to die, and that was the moment he decided to finally live. But, to live for himself, he needed to start teaching his son about what really matters – to know the importance of both self-care and hard work. He exemplified the importance of prioritizing self-care, and the work it takes to do so, by seeking help at Rush University Medical Center Road Home Program, a partner of Wounded Warrior Project’s® (WWP) Warrior Care Network®. Mathius also participated in WWP physical health and connection-based events.

I don’t want him to grow up thinking that it is not OK for boys to cry, or that men have to bottle up their feelings.

“I don’t want him to grow up thinking that it is not OK for boys to cry, or that men have to bottle up their feelings,” Mathius said.

So, he started talking to his son about PTSD and his own personal challenges with mental health.

Mathius had no idea where to start – it seemed impossible to talk to someone so young about a topic like PTSD. But he says, “you’d be surprised at what [kids] already know.” He asked his son what he already knew about war, and he searched for resources to add to the conversations.

“He isn’t shy about asking questions, which I love,” Mathius said about his son. “There are times when I have to say, ‘When you’re older, we can talk a little more about that,’ because the goal is never to traumatize [kids], but children know and understand more than we give them credit for.”

How do you explain fear to a kid that jumps off the couch and could break his neck and doesn't even realize that he almost died?

He said talking to children about life’s challenges, including PTSD, is important, but it can be difficult at first.

“How do you explain fear to a kid that jumps off the couch and could break his neck and doesn't even realize that he almost died?” he asked.

He said staying age-appropriate but being open with them that there is more to learn when they’re older, is key. Allowing the conversations to mature alongside them, and delving into deeper conversations as they grow up is important. But he said acknowledging that children may know more than we think they do, and giving them the space to ask questions and understand is foundational, too. However, there aren’t many tools or resources out there to help get those conversations started.

Mathius with his son.

So, Mathius took matters into his own hands and wrote a book: Instead of Sheep: A Soldier’s Way of Explaining PTSD to his Son. This illustrated children’s book allowed his son to understand his dad’s experiences by personally connecting to them.  He even asked if he’s the little bear depicted in the story. But the book also taught him that he sees life differently than his dad sometimes, like fireworks and crowds at a hockey game.

Now that his son is growing up, Mathius plans to expand the book series, ensuring it evolves alongside his son to cover deeper, more mature topics. He believes it's crucial for children to understand their parents' experiences, and he wants to create resources for both his son and other kids.

“The goal is to eventually be able to sit down with him and tell him exactly what happened,” said Mathius. “But to get there, we have to keep having these smaller conversations in ways that are slowly less and less watered down.”

Learn more about veterans and PTSD and how WWP can help.

Contact: Kaitlyn McCue, Public Relations, kmccue@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.870.1964

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more about how the organization supports veterans.

 

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