The Chesapeake, Va., native had been fascinated by the military his whole life. Both of his parents are Navy veterans and his family tree, heavy with sailors and Marines, reads like a ship’s roster.
“He grew up around military,” said his father, Tom, the chief of police aboard Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va. “He grew up always hearing, ‘If you want to be the best, join the Corps.’”
His uncle, a former leatherneck who passed away when he was a boy, provided most of the inspiration that pushed him towards the Marines.
“I admired his professionalism and his day to day efficiency,” explained McGuiness. “When he died of cancer, it just made me want it even more.”
It was no surprise to friends and family when, during his freshman year of high school, McGuiness first began showing interest in the Marines.
“He went through four years of junior ROTC (reserve officer training corps) in high school,” remembered Tom. “He went to every training thing he could go to, went to the recruiter’s office every day he could get away with it.”
When the day finally came for McGuiness to ride into Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot Parris Island, S.C., in the summer of 2008, he was worried about the same types of things most recruits fretted over.
“Am I going to make it? How hard will it be? How will I handle the stress?” he recalled.
As he ran and screamed with the other recruits still wearing their civilian khakis and collared shirts, he had no idea he had blisters on both his lungs that would soon rupture without warning.
“There’s no way to medically understand it or to medically find it until it happens,” said Tom. “You had a six-foot kid who could run circles around anything.”
The fateful moment came well into McGuiness’ first phase of recruit training as he waited in line for chow.
“I felt a pop in my chest and I hunched over in pain and just tried to stand up,” said McGuiness. “I tried to make it look like I was all right so I wouldn’t go to medical.”
For one hellish week, through punishing physical training and constant screaming,
McGuiness tried to make it look like he was all right.
But he wasn’t.
A blister on his left lung had popped, leaving a hole in the lung’s wall. As he breathed in, air escaped through the hole and built up pressure around his lung, flattening it inside his body.
“Any movement you make is just ridiculous because your lung is no longer attached to your chest and it just bounces around,” said McGuiness. “When you walk, when you stretch, when you lie down, you just feel it.”
Even so, McGuiness said he was determined not to give up despite the fact that he had no way of knowing what was really wrong.
“I thought I pulled a muscle or cracked a rib or something. It felt more or less like someone stabbing you and twisting that knife constantly,” he said.
His father said he somewhat understood his son’s stubborn refusal to quit.
“Well, like any good Marine he tried to hide it,” he laughed. “It’s guess it’s kind of hard to hide losing a lung though.”
It was the gas mask training that finally ended McGuiness’ punishing charade. As he choked down tear gas in the chamber, his chest exploded with searing pain.
“I was coughing really bad and I kind of freaked out and started hitting the wall,” he said.
His drill instructors, who were already suspicious something was wrong, got him out of the chamber and ordered him to head to medical the next day.
It was there, after a series of X-rays, that McGuiness realized a medical discharge was almost certain.
After a couple of short stints at Beaufort, S.C., area hospitals where his lung was stabilized, McGuiness was placed in a special platoon where recruits awaited a medical board’s ruling on whether or not they were fit to serve.
While he waited there he watched his platoon march across the parade deck during what was supposed to be his graduation. They had become Marines. He would soon become a civilian.
“The medical discharge was one of the worst things that ever happened to him because all he ever wanted to be was a Marine. He felt like he failed his family and his Corps,” said Tom.
McGuiness discussed treatment options with his father during the months he spent awaiting discharge. As soon as he got out, the pair went to work.
The two met Cmdr. Robert Strange, one of the Navy’s leading cardiothoracic surgeons, at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.
“The problem you have with spontaneous neumothorax (McGuiness’ condition) is a 30 percent chance of it happening again and after a second episode you have a 60 percent chance of it happening again,” explained Strange.
The Marine Corps required McGuiness to wait three to five years before trying to enlist again in case his lungs developed more problems. With Strange’s help, however, that wait could be reduced to just one year.
“I told him I don’t want them just re-inflated, I want to be able to join,” said McGuiness. “Dr. Strange just hooked me up.”
McGuiness would need two operations, one for each lung. First, surgeons would have to remove and staple the blisters on both lungs using video-scopic surgical tools.
Then, in order to make sure the lungs remained strong, Strange had to “mechanically abrade” McGuiness’ chest walls so that they would swell and stick directly to the lungs. That way, explained Strange, any future ruptures in the lung tissue wouldn’t be able to form a hole and deflate the lungs.
The procedure, said Strange, can be very painful.
“The best medication to stop this pain is an anti-inflammatory drug but if you give that you stop the process you want,” he explained. “We weren’t able to give him the anti-inflammatory drugs to take the pain away.”
Even with the pain killers McGuiness was allowed, the weeks he spent recovering were some of the most painful of his life.
“You gotta breathe, it’s a natural process – if you don’t breathe you die,” said McGuiness. “My problem was my lungs were just on fire.”
Tom remembers watching over his son during those long weeks.
“I’ve never seen my kid in more pain in my life,” he said. “It broke my heart.”
After the first lung had healed, McGuiness went through the whole process again for the other lung.
The pain killers, whose exact effects on the body couldn’t be fully predicted, ended up numbing the wrong side of his body.
“I woke up in the intensive care unit, screamed and then passed back out,” he said, adding he could remember the feeling of the four separate tubes that stayed in his chest during his weeks-long hospital stays. “I had to go back [to training]; all I thought about was going back.”
Looking back on the operations, Strange said he was impressed by his patient’s resilience.
“He was willing to do all that just to go into the Marines and not have to wait,” he said.
Back on his feet after the surgeries, McGuiness, once a model example of physical fitness, found his body in shambles.
“By that time my run time was disgusting, my endurance was bad,” he said. “It tears muscles when they do the surgery and it kind of destroys the abs.”
It was during this year back in the civilian world that McGuiness doubted himself the most. Others would tell him his body had failed him, but he felt in his heart he had no excuses for what he considered to be his own personal failure.
He went back to the recruiter’s office, back to the training functions and back to the gym. For eight months McGuiness worked to regain the body he once had.
In October of 2009, it was time to be Recruit McGuiness all over again.
“I did Navy and my wife did Navy. You’d have to pay me an awful lot of money to go back to boot camp, and this kid went back voluntarily and started on day one,” said Tom. “He needs a psych evaluation.”
It took “waiver, after waiver, after waiver,” to finally get him in because of his complex medical history, said Tom, but his son wouldn’t take no for an answer.
During Parris Island round one, McGuiness was up late talking excitedly with the other recruits. On the bus ride onto the depot he was wide eyed with nervous anticipation.
During round two, he knew better.
“I just fell asleep,” he said, explaining that he remembered the sleepless, hectic nights he faced during his first week on the island over a year ago. “I already knew what to expect.”
McGuiness’ drill instructors knew it was his second time trying recruit training and pushed him a little harder than the first-timers around him.
“Physically, I think I was more ready, but mentally, I wasn’t,” said McGuiness. “I still had that doubt, ‘Am I going to make it?’”
The new Recruit McGuiness made squad leader. Later, he was promoted to guide.
His self-confidence increased as training wore on, he said, until the day he finally made it back from the grueling three-day field exercise known as The Crucible, the final test of recruit training, and claimed his metal Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
“It was just pure happiness,” he said, adding that he had trouble actually believing he’d finally made it. “I just started bawling.”
NEW ORLEANS-Newly minted Pfc. Matt McGuiness poses with his mother, Senior Chief Petty Officer Peggy McGuiness after his graduation ceremony Jan. 15. Tom McGuiness, 11/29/2010
“I saw my sons being born, but the day I saw Matthew holding the battalion guidon during graduation, nothing prepared me for that,” recalled Tom. “I’ve never cried like that.”
McGuiness went on to become Lance Cpl. McGuiness, an amphibious assault vehicle crew member with 4th Amphibian Assault Battalion, 4th Marine Division based in Little Creek, Va.
The pain, the fear, the waiting, the shame, the doubt— it was all worth it, he said.
A common recruiting slogan emblazoned across billboards and buses, “Marines – Earned. Never Given.” For McGuiness, who overcame far more than just screaming drill instructors and long marches, it’s a slogan that held true.