Resident veteran struggles to find his place post-discharge

Matthew Lawrence is trying to shake a frustrating habit.

The 33-year-old former U.S. Air Force dedicated crew chief is known to respond “Copy” to most correspondence, even a casual text message among friends, though he hasn’t been on active duty in a year.

Lawrence, a North Las Vegas resident, spent 11 years traveling around the world on assignments, including a stint in Iraq fixing F-16 jet fighter planes.

The bachelor has tried to sign up for more assignments in war-torn areas to no avail, he said.

When his contract with the Air Force expired, Lawrence entered a new phase of life he says he wasn’t prepared for.

“On March 1, 2011, I became a civilian again,” Lawrence said.

Now, he is like many service men and women coping with life out of combat boots.

Lawrence enlisted in the Air Force as a 21-year-old eager to leave his native Portsmouth, Ohio, and dead-end jobs delivering pizzas or servicing oil changes.

His aspirations and motivations were simple.

“I just wanted to get out of my hometown and ride Harleys,” he said. “My old man was Army, and he talked me out of (that branch).”

Lawrence sought out an Air Force recruiter.

“I said, ‘I need a job. I like to work on fast stuff,’ ” he said.

He renewed his active-duty contract once and had assignments working on planes in Texas, Alaska, Arizona, South Korea, Germany, Turkey and Iraq, which was a five-month assignment he volunteered for to chew away debt.

After his honorable discharge, Lawrence’s technical skills were called upon by private sector manufacturer Lockheed Martin in California.

He worked on F-16s for three months before being laid off after accidentally damaging a plane with a colleague. He returned to Las Vegas and moved in with friends.

“I had no idea I’d be unemployed for eight months,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been too honest on my applications.”

Re-enlisting for active duty might not be a viable option for him.

Veterans Affairs classifies Lawrence as disabled due to a degenerative disc condition in his back, sleep apnea and hyperthyroidism.

Lawrence believes adequate physical therapy could improve his condition, but the VA hasn’t been able to provide it, he said. He hopes a forthcoming, state-of-the-art veterans hospital will be his ticket, he said.

The $600 million Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 6900 N. Pecos Road, is on track to open in late summer. The 1.3 million-square-foot complex is to host 210 beds, facilitate intensive care, surgeries, mental health and extended-care patients and add about 2,000 jobs.

Although the VA has about 20 clinic-style locations that dot the valley, the medical center is to be its first hospital built in Clark County since the early 1990s.

Lawrence searches for jobs in his field daily and collects unemployment and disability benefits. He attended the Free Employment Edge Workshop in January to scout job options.

John Lundberg coordinates the workshops in 33 cities around the country to aid servicemen and women who return home in a time when joblessness is common.

“Somebody who may have joined the military four years ago, they come back now, and Las Vegas is not so fruitful,” he said. “We’re in a bowl, OK? It’s knowing where to go. It’s knowing how their skill sets lined up with what employers are looking for.

“The biggest challenge they have is being able to articulate how those (military skills) translate.”

Lundberg said veterans with acute skills like Lawrence’s are in hot demand.

“Technical (skill) translates to whether they were in computers or aviation or radar electronics — anything,” he said. “They’re a hot commodity. Those rudimentary skills can translate into a lot of skills in the private sector.”

Lawrence said he’s willing to move anywhere or return overseas — even Iraq or Afghanistan — as a civilian if the job is right.

He’s also considering going back to school for more training via the Air Force. Despite his struggles maximizing his veteran’s benefits, Lawrence calls his position with the military a “love-hate relationship.”

“I’ve been stationed in some cool places; I’ve done some cool things,” he said. “You only get one lifetime, (if) you want to do it all, it’s impossible.

“I still think, ‘What’s the worst thing I ever did? Joined the military. What’s the best thing I ever did? Joined the military.’ ”

Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter Maggie Lillis at or 477-3839. Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan contributed to this report.

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