Apodaca: How much can one man and his family sacrifice for the U.S.?

It's often been said in the 10 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that the world as we knew it had changed forever. But let's face it, the world changed far more for some than for others.

Gary Mathieson is one of those whose life was dramatically altered by the events of that horrible day.

Mathieson, a teacher in Newport-Mesa since 2004, is an Air Force reservist. His military service has taken him away from his family for months, sometimes years, at a time. It's been a strain on his finances and his teaching career, and a burden for his wife, who is also a Newport-Mesa teacher, and his daughter, who just turned 13.

But when the towers fell in New York, Mathieson understood immediately what it meant. At the time, he was teaching in Huntington Beach, and his eight-year stint in the Navy Reserve was due to end that December.

"Every reservist, once 9/11 hit, we knew we were at war," he said.

Mathieson decided to reenlist, this time in the Air Force. Since then, he has worked as a loadmaster — a job that requires him to calculate the weight and balance of a plane's cargo — and as a combat photographer.

He's served on missions ferrying wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to military hospitals in Germany and the United States. He's helped deliver equipment overseas and bring the coffins of fallen comrades home.

It's difficult for someone like me to understand the physical and emotional toll that all of this must have had on Mathieson. Yet when I met with him last week, I was struck by his resilience, good humor and humility.

Mathieson was my younger son's seventh-grade physical education teacher at Corona del Mar High School a few years back. He's a well-loved presence at the school — popular with students for his easygoing manner, and with parents, who appreciate the effort he puts into photographing and videotaping school events.

He told me he was due to leave early Saturday morning for two weeks of additional training, and then he'll ship out again in November for eight months. School officials have been extremely supportive, he said, and that's made a huge difference.

"I'm blessed," he said. "I get to do two fantastic jobs."

Mathieson's sanguine attitude is all the more remarkable considering that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ushered in a dramatic shift in the role reservists like him play. Reserves in the National Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have shouldered a far larger share of the burden than in previous conflicts, to the point where they now work almost seamlessly beside permanent, active-duty troops.

A self-described Air Force brat, Mathieson was born at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and "always dreamed of being a flier." But instead of immediately following his father into the military, he pursued teaching. In addition to his teaching credential, Mathieson has a master's degree in special education and a firefighter certification.

When the Persian Gulf War started in 1990, "I felt I had to do something," he said.

That's when he first signed on to the Navy Reserve.

He laughs at some of the questions students ask: Does he carry a weapon?

Yes.

Has he ever shot anyone?

No.

"When I tell them I fly Medevacs, the interest dies down," he said.

But Mathieson isn't so lighthearted when he discusses the price his family has had to pay for his service. His wife, Suzy, has had to carry the load at home during his long deployments, he said, while his daughter, Kacey, has had to grow up with a father who is often absent for long spells.

What does he tell her when he has to leave?

He replied, "I love my country."

He's found little ways of keeping her involved. He once took her teddy bear along on a long deployment and asked his fellow reservists to pass the stuffed animal around.

The bear was returned to him six months later. It had been around the world and was covered in mementos of its travels — a badge, a hat, a Hawaiian shirt and puka shell necklace, a backpack and pictures.

Still, at 50, I have to wonder how Mathieson perseveres. He admitted to moments of doubt.

"I went through survival training at age 40," he said. "I was thinking, 'I could be on the beach with my wife and daughter.' It haunts you."

But most of the time he puts such thoughts aside and remembers that there are others who have sacrificed greatly. He has served beside grandfathers and new mothers and has accompanied wounded men and women, some with missing limbs. He never heard them complain.

Perhaps that's why, even though he has more than four years to go on his current enlistment, "part of me says to keep going 'til they kick me out."

I asked Mathieson what he would like ordinary civilians to understand about those who serve in the military.

He spoke of how deeply he was touched when students collected care packages for him to deliver to the troops. Even a letter or email can make so much difference in the life of a service member or a veteran, he said.

All he asks is that they not be forgotten.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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