By Scott McEwen
Read by Ephraim Mattos
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After leaving the US Navy SEAL teams in spring of 2017, Ephraim Mattos, age twenty-four, flew to Iraq to join a small group of volunteer humanitarians known as the Free Burma Rangers, who were working on the frontlines of the war on ISIS.
Until being shot by ISIS on a suicidal rescue mission, Mattos witnessed unexplainable acts of courage and sacrifice by the Free Burma Rangers, who, while under heavy machine gun and mortar fire, assaulted across ISIS minefields, used themselves as human shields, and sprinted down ISIS-infested streets-all to retrieve wounded civilians.
In City of Death: Humanitarian Warriors in the Battle of Mosul, Mattos recounts in vivid detail what he saw and felt while he and the other Free Burma Rangers evacuated the wounded, conducted rescue missions, and at times fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Iraqi Army against ISIS. Filled with raw and emotional descriptions of what it’s like to come face-to-face with death, this is the harrowing and uplifting true story of a small group of men who risked everything to save the lives of the Iraqi people and who followed the credence, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
As the coauthor of the #1 New York Times bestselling American Sniper, Scott McEwen has teamed up with Mattos to help share an unforgettable tale of an American warrior turned humanitarian forced to fight his way into and out of a Hell on Earth created by ISIS.
In combat it's not about the number of lives you take, it's about the number of lives you save.
—Hamody Jasim, Sgt. Maj. Iraqi Army (Ret.)
© The Fireside Journal, LLC
I Respectfully Disagree
Awakening is not changing who you are but discarding who you are not.
MY NAME IS Ephraim. Like my brother and only sibling, Zebulun, my name was taken from the Old Testament. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—part of a middle-class family in Middle America. We couldn't afford frivolous things, and occasionally there were hard times, but we were always a loving, happy family. Our neighborhood was safe, and I spent much of my days riding my bike, building forts, and playing until dark.
My father, Lonnie Mattos, is a kind, gentle man. I can't recall a moment during my childhood when he lost his temper or yelled at anyone in our family. Even when his small real estate business bankrupted the family after the 2008 financial collapse, my father didn't complain or ask for a handout; he simply got back to work and eventually dug himself out.
Dad also loves his country. While working a blue-collar job at Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport for most of my childhood, he also served in the local Air Force Reserve unit, the 440th Airlift Wing, as a flight engineer on the massive C-130 Hercules cargo plane, the workhorse of the US military. After 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Dad, along with the rest of the 440th, answered the call and went to the war. He flew dozens of combat sorties over Iraq, carrying troops and supplies and evacuating the wounded.
My mother, Bernice Mattos, is a terrific homemaker, and during Dad's multiple deployments, she doubled down her efforts and put all of her energy into her two boys. On top of her domestic responsibilities, Mom took a job at our school as a full-time secretary, earning less than half-time pay just to help support the family.
While I was growing up, Mom was also a devout Baptist. As a result, my childhood centered around a small Independent Fundamental Baptist church in Milwaukee. We attended church services Sunday mornings and evenings. There was a Wednesday night service, and on Saturday mornings, instead of playing ball with the neighborhood kids, Zebulun and I worked in an inner-city outreach ministry. And if that wasn't enough, even the school we attended was run by the church. (There were usually no more than seventy-five students enrolled, kindergarten through grade 12.)
Church practices were notoriously strict, governing most aspects of daily life. Movie theaters were forbidden, and so was music with drumbeats. We couldn't go out on dates or even sit next to a girl in church. Although the restrictions were a bit severe, this was the only life I knew. And it's not like we were living in a commune and driving horse-drawn carriages: everyone worked normal jobs and cheered for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday (after church, of course). But at the end of the day, you were not just a Christian, but an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, and, ideally, you only associated with other Fundamentalist Baptists.
Alas, the two great influences of my youth were the church (my mom) and the military (my dad). Mom and Dad mixed the two worlds together very well, and this unique mixture has made me who I am today: a fighter who has no problem going toe-to-toe with ISIS or the Taliban, but also a humanitarian who cringes at the very thought of hurting someone innocent.
In our church community, the greatest end for a young man was the pulpit or a foreign mission field, so by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I wanted to become a missionary in Africa. My plan was to graduate from a Bible college and move to the deepest part of the continent, carrying salvation in the form of a Bible and prayer.
So what changed? How, just ten years later, did I end up a former Navy SEAL, carrying not the gospel but an AK-47 into one of the bloodiest battles in modern history? Like so many young people, my view of the world and my place within it was forever changed by a discussion with one of my schoolteachers. It began with a simple question.
"Why," asked Mr. Schuldt, my tenth-grade history instructor, "did God allow 9/11 to happen?"
The other students—fidgeting in their chairs and staring back with blank expressions—didn't seem taken with the question. But it disturbed me. We'd been taught to believe every single thing that happened in life was planned by a loving and merciful God. Everything. Yet how could a loving God let thousands of people be murdered?
With perhaps more conviction than I was feeling, I responded: "Because God had a bigger purpose."
"So, it was God's will that innocent people be slaughtered?" Mr. Schuldt prodded, leaning forward on his podium with a mischievous grin.
"Well, yes," I replied. "God's ways are above our ways. He knows what is best. We just have to trust Him."
"But then, how can you say that God is a loving and caring God? There were children and babies killed on 9/11. Did He want them to die, too?" he pressed.
I didn't have an answer. Seeing my distress, Mr. Schuldt smirked and stood up straight.
"What about this?" His gaze grew serious. "What if God never wanted 9/11 to happen? What if God had nothing to do with it at all?"
What Mr. Schuldt was now suggesting was blasphemous. Since we were children, our religious education attested to God's omniscience. He directed every minuscule event in the world, and His will was ingrained into everything that happened in this life. There was no way that 9/11 fell beyond the limitless bounds of God's supreme plan.
"God didn't orchestrate 9/11," he continued. "Terrorists did 9/11."
"Sure, but God allowed them to do it," I replied.
"Exactly," Mr. Schuldt said. "God has given us all free will. The men responsible for 9/11 had free will, too. They were given a choice, and they chose to murder others. God is heartbroken over what they've done."
While part of me didn't want to accept what Mr. Schuldt had said, I was unable to let it go and went through the rest of the school day in a fog. Could it be true? Is it possible that it was not God's will for 9/11 to happen? Was it really just terrorists acting of their own free will?
Looking back, it seems obvious. But at the time, the idea that God may not have a specific plan for every event on the planet defied all laws of my universe. But if true, it not only explained how an event as horrific as 9/11 could happen; it meant something much more personal—I was free. If God did not have a specific path for us, then I was able to choose my own way. Of course, I wanted to do good for others (not evil), but questions of how and in what way were suddenly open for discussion.
A sense of possibility energized me, and that evening I scoured my Bible. I found passages about God guiding us and showing us a way through darkness, but nothing stating that He has scripted every step we take, or that fire and brimstone would fall from the sky if a person failed to do something like go to church on Sunday night.
I decided Mr. Schuldt was right: terrorists did act on their own, and, accordingly, we were all to be judged based upon the decisions we made in life.
Feeling liberated, I began to question everything—What's the deal with the music? What about movie theaters?—and realized that, although well-intentioned, the adults in my life had applied their interpretations of the Bible as if they were Biblical law. But now I understood: God gave each of us the ability to interpret His Word, and I could navigate a course accordingly.
From then on, when a preacher or a schoolteacher told me something, I took it with a healthy dose of skepticism. I listened politely because I knew they weren't speaking falsely—they very much believed in what they were saying—but I began to question, rather than assume, the truth behind their message. I measured every word, and when things didn't add up, I'd think, That's not in the Bible; it's just your opinion. It wasn't an open rebellion, but my mindset toward many church practices had simply become "I respectfully disagree."
Only fifteen years old at the time, my perspective had changed, and I couldn't blindly accept the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist way of life. These were good people, but I understood I was no longer one of them. The only problem was I knew nothing else.
Even before growing apart from the church, I'd been interested in the military, thinking it would benefit me as a missionary abroad. I wanted to be able to defend myself and others if things went sideways.
After my father let my brother and me watch the movie Black Hawk Down around the time I was in middle school, I'd become obsessed with the Army Rangers, reading any book and online post I could discover about the elite unit. While I was doing my research on the Internet, articles and videos would also pop up about Green Berets, Air Force Pararescue, Navy SEALs, Marine Recon, etc. And every time I saw something about the SEALs, I'd think, That would be cool.
But becoming a SEAL seemed impossible. I was too soft to ever make it through the infamous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training school (or BUD/S for short). Those guys are crazy! But one day, after I'd just finished reading my hundredth article about the SEALs and once again deducing it was beyond me, I had another thought: What kind of a Ranger would I be if I was backing off from the challenge of being a SEAL out of fear and self-doubt? That's not fair to the Rangers.
I had studied everything I could find about Ranger selection and training, and though it would be challenging, I felt confident that I could do it. When I looked at the SEAL training and selection process in comparison, I knew my chances weren't so good. But I didn't want to be the kind of person who fails to pursue something out of fear or insecurity. My mind was made up. I simply closed the browser and walked away from the computer believing that I was going to be a SEAL.
A few weeks later, I began to tell people at school my plan. It was unwelcome news, the world's future missionaries and preachers scorning the notion. In defiance, I taped a picture of a SEAL to the outside of my locker, but was soon told to remove the "sign of rebellion," even though everyone else had pictures and decorations on their lockers. I took the picture down but displayed it on the cover of a binder I carried to every class. At some point, one of the other students got a hold of it and drew an L for Loser on the SEAL's forehead.
Later, during a full-school gathering in chapel, the preacher proclaimed from the pulpit: "We don't need more Navy SEALs in the world! We need more preachers!" My whole body blushed under the condescending gaze of my peers, but I met their disapproval with my head held high, determined more than ever to succeed.
I refused to go back to the school for my junior year, telling my parents I wanted to go to public school. Mom nearly had a heart attack—her answer was clearly "NO!" Instead, my parents paid for a Christian-based homeschool curriculum that I would have to complete on my own.
But homeschool marked the worst period of my life—my Year of Darkness. I had ostracized myself, losing my friends and my community in one fell swoop. Being home wasn't much of a refuge because my mother was furious with me, and, on top of it all, I had committed myself to the task of becoming a SEAL—something I still doubted I could achieve.
Alone, terrified, and inept, I fell back on what I figured had to be the SEAL's mindset: Even when you have nothing, give it everything you got!
The first of many hurdles in becoming a SEAL is physical conditioning. I looked up all the requirements online: how fast I needed to run and swim; how many push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups I had to do in two minutes. I had no one to go to—let alone work out with—so, like everything else in my life, I trained in isolation. I threw on my dad's combat boots and Air Force cargo pants and ran up and down the sidewalks in my neighborhood each night.
Obviously, I didn't have a clue. I knew nothing about warming up or stretching, sprints or how to increase my speed. I'd never touched a weight in my life. Proper training nutrition—good carbs, bad carbs, protein, fat—was a foreign concept. I would literally just throw on the gear and run my timed miles, thinking: "If I don't make it, I'll push a little harder next time." It was extremely frustrating.
To make matters worse, I was a very poor swimmer. That's a problem because SEAL is an acronym for Sea Air Land, "sea" being first on the list for a reason: their operations are based around water, and they can all swim extremely well. But when I started training, the doggy paddle was my only stroke. I couldn't make one length of a pool without clinging to the side to catch my breath, and yet to pass the SEAL entrance test, I would have to swim twenty lengths of the pool at a fast pace before doing push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups and then running 1.5 miles.
What have I gotten myself into?
And it didn't help that I'd begun working the third shift at McDonald's: after going for a late-night run—inevitably missing my goal for time—I would drive the thirty minutes to the Golden Arches, where I'd scrub grease off the kitchen, dining, and bathroom surfaces from eleven p.m. until six a.m. the next day. Then I'd drag myself to the library, trying to stay awake while I struggled to teach myself algebra and chemistry. I got little sleep and was constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
My first success finally came, of all places, in the pool. As I said, l couldn't swim five hundred meters to save my life, yet SEALs are expected to swim thousands of meters in heavy ocean surf. To make the leap, I signed up for the lifeguarding class at the indoor YMCA pool, thinking it would force me to learn not only how to swim but how to swim long distances.
In preparation for the class, I stopped off at the pool between work and studying at the library each day. I watched swimmers in the lap lanes next to me and just copied what they did, coughing up gallons of water over those trial-and-error sessions. But by the time the lifeguarding class started, I had a decent crawl and sidestroke and could complete the five-hundred-meter swim required for the course. (I would ultimately learn that the most important stroke for a SEAL is the sidestroke, which can be maintained for miles while towing guns, explosives, ammunition, or an injured teammate.)
To begin every class, the instructor made us swim five hundred meters. Those first practices, I would always finish last—even the girls would crush me. It was humiliating. But every other person in the class would rest during their five hundred meters. Except me. My MO: never stop swimming, never rest. And so, no matter how tired I was, I kept going, and by the final test, I finished a full minute ahead of the others. I had learned the strokes, built up my endurance, and graduated the class with the top score. While not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, it was a big deal to me at the time, and it taught me the first and last rule of SEAL Teams: Never quit!
After passing the class, I was able to trade time at McDonald's for lifeguard shifts at the Y. I also became a swim instructor, one of the best jobs I've ever had, and a good lesson for whatever lay ahead: it showed me how hard work and dedication to improve myself could, in turn, help others.
My parents soon began to realize that I wasn't crazy or rebellious. They saw my dedication and noted its positive effects over the course of the year. Finally, Mom relented on homeschooling, and I enrolled in Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory High School for my senior year.
I enjoyed my time in public school. It wasn't a "Godforsaken hellhole" after all. I remember being stunned my first day of school when I saw students taking bets on who would get better grades. The teachers and faculty cared about the students, and the students, for the most part, cared about their academic achievements.
During the course of the year, I began speaking with a Navy recruiter, Petty Officer Taylor, about becoming a SEAL. I'd heard horror stories about recruiters screwing people over and pushing them to take jobs they didn't really want, but Taylor never acted like that with me. He was a straight shooter, and after talking with me a few times, he set up an action plan for me to become a SEAL candidate.
The SEALs require an examination called the CSORT, Computerized Special Operations Resiliency Test. Sometimes referred to as the "mental toughness test," the CSORT is designed to assess the candidate's ability to handle psychological stress, psychological recovery (after being beaten down mentally and/or physically), and other personality traits necessary to be a SEAL. The test can only be taken once, and there's no preparation for it.
Petty Officer Taylor was rather nonchalant about the whole thing. "Look, man, you've gotta take this evaluation. It's scored one to four. It's going to see how psycho you are," he joked. "If you're a four, you're basically a no-remorse terminator; if you get a one, you're an average guy who stands a 10 percent chance of making it."
"It's actually pretty dumb," he concluded. "Everybody just gets a one."
The test was certainly odd. It basically presented you with two moral statements and asked you to choose. Oftentimes, both options were bad or both were good. It then paired these same statements with dozens of different statements and again asked you to choose one or the other. This lasted for several uninterrupted hours.
When I completed the test, Taylor came over as the computer read my score. It was a 3.
"Dude! You're a killer!" he laughed. "Have you taken this test before?!"
"Of course not," I replied.
"Well, damn. Based on that score, you've got like a 75 percent chance of making it!"
I don't know if that's accurate or not, but he seemed excited, and so did the other Navy recruiters in the room. But in just a few short months, after graduating from high school and heading off to BUD/S, I would soon find that the "mental toughness" aspect was almost all that mattered.
The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.
—General (Ret.) Norman Schwarzkopf
HALF OF ALL SEAL candidates usually quit in the first three weeks of BUD/S. After that, those who remain endure the infamous Navy SEAL Hell Week—a brutal trial that again reduces the group by about half. During BUD/S and Hell Week, candidates who have had enough signify their defeat by ringing a bell three times. The bell is carried to every training event during Hell Week and is an ever-present reminder of how easy it is to simply "ring out" and walk away from it all.
It was just after my nineteenth birthday when my BUD/S class, Class 289, began its Hell Week. But instead of being prepared for the toughest training of my life, I was in rough shape. For days I had been battling viral gastroenteritis, or VGE—a highly contagious stomach flu that induces uncontrollable vomiting, explosive diarrhea, and excruciating stomach cramps. The sickness inevitably induces a mild state of starvation and dehydration due to all the fluid loss. I had witnessed VGE's effects dozens of times since the start of BUD/S as other students vomited and defecated all over themselves while we ran, swam, and lugged rucksacks, boats, and logs countless miles. Lying next to each other with arms linked in the frigid Pacific Ocean during cold water immersion, or "surf torture," students with VGE could often be heard weeping and apologizing as the waves carried their feces and vomit all over the rest of us. I never got angry at these guys—it wasn't their fault. I knew I could get the same sickness, and unfortunately, I did so at the worst possible time. But complaining about it or going to the doctor was not an option. I knew the instructors would single me out for weakness and send me back to the beach with the rest of the class. I was just going to have to deal with it.
So to say I was not even close to being ready for Hell Week when I reported to base—after two days on my bathroom floor trying to contain the constant flow of fluids from my body—would be an understatement. Before leaving for "work" that morning, I'd called my dad and told him I didn't think I was going to make it.
- "In combat it's not about the number of lives you take, it's about the number of lives you save. Ephraim did not only fight the toughest terrorists in the world during the Battle of Mosul, but he also saved numerous innocent Iraqi lives. He is the true definition of an American freedom fighter."—Hamody Jasim, Sgt. Major Iraqi Army (Ret.) and author of The Terrorist Whisperer
- "Ephraim Mattos has demonstrated a rare level of public virtue and commitment to humanity. CITY OF DEATH is a sobering reminder of the challenges we face on this earth, but stories like Ephraim's inspire us to press on. Books detailing the lives of Special Forces heroes are not uncommon these days. However, Ephraim's unique story of combat and sacrifice AFTER leaving the military will leave a lasting impression on the reader."—Tim Ballard, Founder & CEO of Operation Underground Railroad
- "Ephraim's story is a taut real-life thriller. His vivid and brilliantly reported account of events on the front-lines gives the reader a real dose of reality. He has a unique way of storytelling that makes this book a page-turner."—Rudolph Atallah, Lt Colonel (Ret), Former Africa Counter-terrorism Director, Office of the Secretary of Defense
- On Sale
- Oct 23, 2018
- Hachette Audio