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Dealing Death to the ‘Deck of Cards’

As the student speaker at Tuesday’s commencement at Chippewa Valley Technical College, Michael Mataczynski will address fellow graduates who have their futures ahead of them. He will address them as a United States Army veteran who knows what it’s like to peer into the eyes of men who have no future.

Mataczynski, a native of Ladysmith, expects his future to involve work as a paralegal; he may even pursue law school. But just a couple of years ago, it was Mataczynski’s job to deliver to high-profile Iraqi detainees decisions from their new government’s highest court. Dozens of times, he delivered orders for their executions. Those who learned of their fate from Mataczynski included the half-brother of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and his notorious cousin known as “Chemical Ali.” 

“Some of them took it calmly. Some of them got up in arms over it and yelled and screamed a bit,” Mataczynski recalls. “I would try to keep it as brief and unemotional as possible, but I was handing them a document that was essentially going to end their life.”

Mataczynski realizes this duty took a toll on him personally, but says it doesn’t make him special in any way. All veterans are affected by their experiences, and have unique struggles in reintegrating into civilian life. For his part, Mataczynski anticipates a bright future, a future made possible – in  part at least – by his military experience.

Eager volunteer

Mataczynski graduated early from Ladysmith High School in spring 2006 so he could enter training with the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

“In my senior year in high school, I didn’t have the maturity level I needed for college,” he says. Joining the military would provide discipline and the chance to go to school and see the world.
After basic training, he was assigned to a Hayward-based National Guard unit and enrolled at UW-Barron County. In 2008, he volunteered for a deployment to Trinidad, where his unit built a school.

The next year, Mataczynski volunteered for a deployment to Iraq. “I saw the war winding down a bit, and I wanted to get a piece of the action and be part of it,” he says. “You want to take everything you’ve learned, all of your training, and put it to use.”
He shipped out for Kuwait on April 28, 2009, then began the journey north toward Baghdad.

“Surreal” experience

“It was really a surreal moment pushing north into Iraq,” he says. “There’s a level of fear, and a level of excitement.”

Trained as an Army paralegal by his choice, Mataczynski was reassigned to the 89th Military Police Brigade as part of the Judge Advocate General’s office.

“A lot of soldiers would seek legal assistance regarding divorce and separation,” Mataczynski says. “War has a lot of implications on marriages. Divorce rates are extremely high.”
Another of his duties was to inspect three U.S.-run detention camps. This came after a scandal involving abusive treatment of Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad led to stricter inspections of U.S.-run prisons.

Legal liaison

Mataczynski’s most dramatic military experience came in his role as the liaison to the Iraqi High Tribunal. From his predecessor in that post, Mataczynski learned how to approach the job objectively, to maintain an emotional distance from the life-altering seriousness of the situation.

“I would sit down with the detainees, serve them their orders, and deliver information between them and their attorneys,” he says. “I would try not to address them by name, only by (detainee) number.”

Accompanying Mataczynski in these private meetings with the detainees were military police officers and an interpreter.

Execution orders didn’t come as a surprise to most of the men who received them, Mataczynski says. Most were former leaders within Iraq’s brutal Baath Party regime. When they were being hunted down, U.S. Military forces assigned them code names corresponding to playing cards. For weeks, the hunt for the “deck of cards” was major news.

“I dealt with a number of them on a weekly basis,” he says. “I would have to do research to know who these people were. They were a number to me.”

Sometimes what his research revealed helped Mataczynski’s in carrying out his task.

“I didn’t want to resent them, and I didn’t want to feel sorry for them. I just wanted to do my job and not take it home with me,” he says. “But from time to time it would weigh heavily on me. When it did, I would research what they did to end up in that place, reminding myself of what they did to get executed.”

Execution orders weren’t always final; appeals were allowed. But eventually the final orders would come.

The “King of Spades,” Ali Hassan al-Majid, widely known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons against enemies of the Baath regime in northern Iraq, was the highest profile of the men to whom Mataczynski delivered execution orders.

“He was fairly calm,” Mataczynski recalls. “It was almost as if he didn’t have the will to fight it anymore.”

Ali was hanged on Jan. 25, 2010, just a few weeks after Mataczynski delivered the order. By then, Mataczynski had shipped out for home.

While carrying out his grim task, Mataczynski kept in mind that the execution orders he was delivering were not issued by him. “When they read it themselves from a judge, they would have a different reaction than if they were told by an American soldier,” he says.

Coming home

Mataczynski knows his Army experience was unique, but no more difficult than what many others experienced. Many of his fellow soldiers, their own lives hanging in the balance, had to kill enemy soldiers at close range, and live with the trauma of that afterwards.

“Everybody comes back with some feelings of confusion,” Mataczynski says. “You don’t realize how much you’ve changed until you see home again.”

Mataczynski says he returned to the U.S. a more disciplined man and more appreciative of the freedoms and relative luxury afforded most Americans.

Still, he faces daily challenges. During his military experience, he built an emotional wall between himself and his duties, enough to make him fear losing his own sense of compassion, after having seen men whose lack of compassion for others led them to the gallows.

“You numb yourself to any possibility of a negative emotion,” he says. “When you get home, you remember how to feel again.”

Reintegration into American society is difficult for all veterans, Mataczynski says. For him, it’s been important to have a strong belief system and to realize he was part of something much bigger than himself.

Life is looking up for Michael Mataczynski, just as it is for the others graduating from CVTC Tuesday night. He has his degree now, and he’s married. He and his wife, Dawn, met in the service and shared their tour of duty in Iraq together.

It doesn’t bother Mataczynski to talk about his military experiences. They comprise a central part of who he is. And he looks forward to new experiences that will form for him a life uniquely his own.