A heart stopping tale of addiction and crime funded by a DOD credit card. An inside look at how one man found his way back from a prison barracks in Hawaii to redemption and recovery.
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Shlomo Hoffman [00:00:04]: Hello everybody, welcome to Episode 11 of Rubber Bands, conversations about the push and pull of addiction and recovery. We continue to shed light on the world of addiction treatment by talking to the people who make up its heart and soul; those who have gone through it and those that have helped them get through it, sharing their experiences and insight on how people can find their way back from the darkest places and light up the world for themselves and for those that love them.
Today, we are joined by Matt Engler, a key member of our Louisiana team. Known throughout Avenues for his dedication to the world of recovery, Matt has an incredible story to tell and we are grateful that he’s here today to share it. Hold onto your seats, it’s going to be an incredible ride.
Matt, how have you been?
Matt Engler [00:00:46]: Good, good. Thank you for having me.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:00:49]: You pulled yourself out of the hurricane?
Matt Engler [00:01:03]: Pulled myself out of the hurricane. It’s probably better said that everybody around here pulled me out of the hurricane; it was really something.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:01:10]: But we’re back and full steam ahead, right?
Matt Engler [00:01:12]: We are back. We’re back really quickly. It hit on the 29th of August, we were back on September 8th. Addiction doesn’t stop just ‘cause a hurricane rolled through and we got back open just in time.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:01:26]: Awesome. Okay, let’s get to it, Matt. You have an incredible story to tell. We’ve heard bits and pieces; we’re excited to hear the whole thing chronologically. Where do you want to start from? Let’s start from the beginning. How did you find addiction?
Matt Engler [00:01:39]: I think it was always there. The idea that I could have been anything else, I don’t believe in it. I really believe that from day one I was always gonna be an addict. I didn’t plan to be; I didn’t want to be. It really is just how it worked out. I do prescribe that from the first use I was addicted. My family has it and I come from a long line of people who have it in one capacity or the next and I’ll tell you, the first time I used, it was exactly what I was looking for. And look, I don’t want it to be some sob story, either. At the end of the day, I liked the way drugs made me feel, so I did them again. And I couldn’t stop doing them after that and I suffered consequences as a result of it. And I need something to help me stop once I’ve started. That is addiction as I see it, as it applies to me.
So dad was definitely an addict. Good guy, right? He’s an awesome guy, a lot of fun, super adventuresome, taught me a lot about being a man. But at the same time, he was an opiate addict and eventually it wound up killing him. So I think probably a lot of people say I come by it honestly, for sure. And it did not spare me in the least.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:03:04]: Okay, so let’s start from the beginning. So Matt’s story, just a quick intro, Matt’s story winds us through the criminal system, it winds us through the military system of the United States of America, sort of those two things merge and jumped together and went back and forth.
Matt Engler [00:03:20]: It’s funny that the crime and the military, they started legitimately on the same day. Look, when I started, I started young, I started hard, and I could never afford being a drug addict. I always needed basically other people’s money in order to get the deal done. Look, using is expensive. It is expensive. Being addicted to something costs a lot, right? Initially it seems like, you know, if I just get enough money to get myself through the end of the day, I’ll be fine. But there’s very little hope of holding down a job and crime is, like, the natural way to do it. And there’s any number of crimes that exist out there that produce enough money to do it. I liked home invasion, you know?
So I would like to think that I could go out and sell drugs, but that wasn’t in the cards. I did drugs. They were not for sale. Those were mine. Right? So what I landed on was breaking and entering, stealing people’s stuff, and selling it. It was very lucrative. To me, it seemed pretty easy. They already had the stuff, all I had to do was get in their house and take it. So it seemed kind of like a no-brainer at the time and that’s what I would start to do.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:04:47]: Were you running alone? Were you running with a crowd?
Matt Engler [00:04:50]: I always wanted to do it alone. In my mind, at the time, it made sense, because less opportunity to get caught.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:04:58]: Walk us through a job.
Matt Engler [00:05:00]: So it started, really, in my neighborhood, in the one that I grew up in. Like I said, it was upper middle class, a lot of people had, I guess, valuable possessions. So I would walk around the neighborhood. I’d find a home without a security system out front—the sign that’s in the front yard. That really is the truth, too, when they say the sign is the most preventative thing that the security company has, for sure.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:05:34]: So you were strolling the neighborhood looking for signs.
Matt Engler [00:05:37]: Right. If you had a sign in your front yard, I’d go to the next one. The one without the sign, that’d be the one that got it. And I’d find a window. Everybody leaves a window open for some reason. They’ll lock the doors, but they’ll leave a window open. And yeah, I’d find my way in. The first place I’d hit was always the medicine cabinet or the cabinet in the kitchen where everybody keeps whatever prescription pills they have. At first, it really surprised me how many people had narcotics in their house. And usually they’re, like, leftover prescriptions from something legitimate, but that was the prize for me. That’s really what I wanted.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:06:16]: So a half a bottle of Percocet was gold.
Matt Engler [00:06:18]: That was gold. That was perfect. I went straight to the source. I mean, I was going in there to get money to go buy them anyways, so if they would have them in the house, it was definitely ringing the bell, for sure. Past that, I would take something that was easily carried. You know, jewelry was always the second best prize. Then you’d get it over to the pawn shop and find out it wasn’t real [laughter]. It’s like, you can’t tell if it’s real gold when you’re breaking into someone’s house. You’ve gotta get out of there quick. But that would be the thing. You know, go for the medicine cabinet, go for the cabinet in the kitchen, find the prize. You’ve got a couple more minutes after that to find something of real value that’s easily carried and then you’ve gotta get out. You’ve gotta get out of the house. Somebody probably saw you go in; you’re definitely not supposed to be there. And no matter what, the fear starts to set in. It feels like an eternity when you’re in somebody’s house. It feels like you’re in there a long time. And you’ve gotta get out. If I spent five minutes in the house, it felt like I was there all day. And so I’d get out, I’d move onto the next.
And look, all good things come to an end. While I’ve got the guts to do it, I guess I didn’t have the brains to get away with it. If there’s a string of burglaries in a suburb like I grew up in, the cops are going to notice for sure, which they did, 100% noticed. I can remember the day, I pull up to my mom’s house and there was a business card in the front door, like in the crack of the front door. And it was the detective who I guess was assigned to my case. And I knew the deal. I knew it was up. I knew I’d been caught. And I threw that card straight in the trash can. My mindset at the time was, you’re going to have to come to the house, right, you’re going to have to come get me. And he did. He had no problem coming back in a couple of days. He came into—it was my mother and I sitting in the living room. He walked in and he looked me dead in the eye and he said, “Dude, you know why I’m here.” So I did know why he was here. I was never gonna admit that I knew why he was there. I got a lawyer.
I told the lawyer everything, right, because that’s what’s you’re supposed to do with lawyers: hey guy, this is all the crime I committed, get me out of it. Right? Like, that’s the arrangement when you get one of these. And he did. He worked with the DEA. I told him I was willing to join the Marine Corps, join the military. And they cut a deal that as long as I joined, they would forego prosecution on all the charges. Which, I don’t know how many they were, but they had me on plenty. Look, I don’t know if I’d ever have found myself in prison over those, but at the time, it seemed like that was what was on the table. It seemed like they knew the crimes that I committed, those crimes did carry a sentence, and I didn’t want to go to prison, right? So the military it was.
So it’s always funny, right? They are linked in my opinion. The military and crime for me are absolutely joined at the hip. So that was the decision. I accepted and never made it to court, which is also kind of like one of those old stories too, you know? My family, we had the money to afford a lawyer. So I didn’t really have to suffer a lot of consequences of the things that I was doing. I always wanted to join the military, you know, I just couldn’t ever get myself there because I was addicted, right? I couldn’t shake using so I would have never made it to the military. It wasn’t as harsh of a consequence as it could have been or as it should have been.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:10:11]: And how does the military view that? What’s that process? You’re an addicted guy. Do they know that you’re addicted, or they’re just looking at your crime? How is it that you just skate into the military? You’re a complete addict, you’re a wreck, you’re dysfunctional, you’re stealing, you’re robbing. The military is just like, sure, come on in. Like, how does that work?
Matt Engler [00:10:31]: So at the time, it was kind of a don’t ask questions period of time. You know, the war on terror was going crazy at the time and popping off. There’s this huge surge—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:10:42]: And how’s your family reacting to this while this is going on?
Matt Engler [00:10:47]: So they were—my dad understood the deal. He understood that I was a drug addict. He knew that I was in a rough spot because he was there at the time too. So he understood it. He knew I had some stuff to work out. And at the end of the day, if I did or didn’t work it out, he got it both ways. He kind of accepted the fact that I was a drug addict. Now, he had some maladaptive thinking as a result of his own use and he maybe wasn’t looking at it super clearly. My mother, I think, was terrified. I think she was really scared for me. I was not living a life that you could go to sleep every night and say, my boy is going to wake up tomorrow, right? My boy, he’s going to be okay. I was living a life where I was never okay. And I imagine, and I’m a parent now, I would never want to watch my children go through that, have to live that way. So I think she was terrified. I’m joining the Corps and I think she’s got some hope over it. At least there is this institution out there who is, like, wildly successful at taking boys and making them into men, right? Kids and making them into adults. I think she put a lot of faith in that the Corps could help me out and save me, is the thing.
At the same time, I’ll tell you, I put a lot of faith in it too. I really felt like, you know, this was the thing that I needed in order to help me along with life. Because at the end of the day, like, I’m not a dumb guy, you know? I know the life that I’m living, it isn’t okay. There was nothing I could do about it and feel like I could get out of the cycle.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:27]: So we’re moving on. We’re going to the Corps, we’re out of the clutches of the government, and we’re headed to the Corps. Where were you stationed?
Matt Engler [00:12:36]: So I went to boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina. So I showed up. I knew—I knew heroin takes about three days, four days to get out of your system, so I used right up until the end.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:49]: Are you tested the second you come in?
Matt Engler [00:12:51]: Tested the second you go in. And I used right up until the end and I show up to Paris Island, I’m sick, you know? I’m sick from detox and I had no idea how I was going to make it through. I thought for sure I was going to get discharged or I wasn’t going to be able to hack it. And even until this day, I don’t know how I made it through those first few days and weeks, I really don’t. I think it was divine intervention. Blind luck. Whatever you want to call it, by no definition should I have made it through, but I did. And there is—I’ll tell you, there was a point in time where I switched from just being, like, the sick drug addict who showed up to somebody who began to see the value in it, wanted to be very good at it, took a lot of pride in what I was doing. So all of those things that I kind of hoped for leading up to it started to happen in boot camp, for sure.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:13:53]: You started believing in The Few. The Proud. The Marines.
Matt Engler [00:13:55]: I did. 100%. I was bought in. It was very true to me. And I loved it. And no matter how it worked out, which we’ll get into, I still believe that today. I really do. I respect all of the branches. But the Marines, they’re really good people who give a lot to be what they are.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:14:18]: Spoken like a true Marine: I believe in all the branches, but the Marines is where it’s at. Right?
Matt Engler [00:14:23]: I have a preference for sure [laughter].
Shlomo Hoffman [00:14:30]: How many people make it through? How many people did you come in with and how many people made it?
Matt Engler [00:14:36]: There’s about—from what I understand, there’s about a 10% attrition rate.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:14:43]: I would have thought it’d be higher, interesting.
Matt Engler [00:14:45]: You’re going to finish. They always would say, the quickest way off of Paris Island is to graduate. That’s it. You’re gonna finish. Everybody has the ability to do it. Everybody does.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:14:49]: I kinda think I wouldn’t make it a week.
Matt Engler [00:15:05]: They are not who they are because people can’t get through it. They are who they are because they figure out a way for everybody to cut it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:15:17]: That’s an interesting perspective.
Matt Engler [00:15:20]: They get it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:15:22]: They’re not there to thin out the ranks. Like, sort of our perspective is they’re there to see who can make it, you know, the few people who can make it. You’re kinda saying something else. You’re kinda saying that they sort of lift up the people, like, if you’re here, we’re gonna get you through it. We’re gonna make you a better man.
Matt Engler [00:15:39]: That’s right.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:15:40]: You know, I’m kinda just thinking as we’re talking that these kind of lessons that you’re talking about, you know, pulling people through and reaching everybody and their individual strengths and where their weaknesses lie, it kind of probably helps you in the recovery world. It’s kind of the same, you know, the same lessons. It’s a different theater, but it’s also finding where that person is going to make his mark, how are you going to make that person tick, how are you going to reach that individual?
Matt Engler [00:16:13]: It’s one of the things that I remain so grateful for the Corps over. Those principles that they taught and trained me on, I apply them every day in what I do today. There is always one more thing we can do with somebody who is in treatment with us. We should never give up on our people. Their issues, their problems, however we want to categorize it, are very individual. And it’s up to us to figure out how to help them through those things.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:16:50]: And all of the branches of the military are okay also.
Matt Engler [00:16:52]: And all the branches are [laughter], I love them all.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:16:55]: So you finished boot camp, you graduated, you’re a Marine. What happens next? Oh, by the way, were you using at all during boot camp? Or that’s not, like…
Matt Engler [00:17:01]: So I felt really safe there. And for a long time, I was really safe. There was a point in time, if you have wisdom teeth when you go to boot camp—or at least when I went, if you have wisdom teeth in your face, they pull ‘em, right? They take them out. They pull ‘em. If you’ve got one or you’ve got four, it doesn’t matter; they’re pulling those things from you. And so when they send you back to the squad bank, you get six Vicodin, you get a prescription of six Vicodin, and a prescription for a day of bedrest, and you don’t get either of those things [laughter]. In my platoon, you didn’t get either of those things.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:17:40]: There’s no Vicodin and there’s no bedrest.
Matt Engler [00:17:42]: No Vicodin, no bedrest. You get asked, “Do you really want your day of bedrest?” But you get asked in the way that’s like, don’t say yes to it, you know, just say no.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:17:52]: It kind of prepares you for marriage, Matt. [Laughter]
Matt Engler [00:17:57]: So they took all the Vicodin. There was a ton of us who went to dental that day, they’d take all the Vicodin. And my job, at that time, in the platoon, I had to clean the drill instructor’s office, every day. I had to go clean the drill instructor’s office, there was a foot locker that I moved around and the lock wasn’t locked. So I opened it up to see what was in there, and all the Vicodin were in there. So it was—just out of reflex. I hadn’t used in a long time. But I also hadn’t done anything specifically to address my addiction up until that point. I had just gone done to boot camp. I’d done something specific addressing how to be a Marine, not how to be sober. So I just took them, right out of reflex. Took all those pills and started using. In boot camp. It’s like a testament back to the you’re not safe from this thing, anyway. Unless you get some help. Unless you deal with it. Unless you figure out how to be sober, how to maintain that sobriety, it’s going to come back. You know, you can’t just forget about being an addict and that’s enough.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:19:19]: And it didn’t affect your performance?
Matt Engler [00:19:20]: No. Opiates were always kind of like a performance enhancer for me. I could handle things—I could just handle things better. I wouldn’t feel the physical pain. My mind felt like it got clearer. There was a lot of characteristics about opiate use that I felt like it improved who I was.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:19:44]: Interesting. And you’re not getting tested? You’re not getting tested throughout?
Matt Engler [00:19:48]: No. No, you’re sitting in boot camp and under no—it would be weird for anybody to hear that while in Paris Island, while in boot camp, while in a squad bay, you still figured out how to get high, you know? It’s just not necessarily one of those common things. So, no, we weren’t getting drug tested. We were not. And what I thought was I got away with it. You know, I got away with it, nobody found out, it was fine. The few days’ worth of pills that I had were what they were. I got a little fun time while I was in boot camp.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:20:29]: Cool. So now you’ve moved on. You’ve graduated, what’s next?
Matt Engler [00:20:35]: So post-graduation, I come home. I get leave. I get a small leave; I think ten days after boot camp. And the whole ten days, I spent partying. I say the whole ten; I partied for seven, ‘cause you’ve got to clear out your system for those last three, ‘cause when I go to job training, MLS school is what they call it, there’s gonna be a drug test when you go there. So six, seven days, whatever it was.
And I can remember thinking on my way back to North Carolina that man, Louisiana is the problem, you know? I knew what I had done for that first half of my leave was not okay. Again, remember, intellectually, like, I get it, I know this isn’t what I should be doing. So I really identified, like, Louisiana is the thing. I can’t go back there because every time I go back there, I’m gonna do something that I either regret, don’t wanna do, feel guilty, or I’m nervous about having done it. So, like, Louisiana is a problem. I totally erased the fact that, like, I got loaded in boot camp. But I’m just thinking, like, I go back to Louisiana, see all my old friends, that’s the problem.
So North Carolina is, I’m gonna be supply administration. That’s gonna be my job in the Corps, and that’s where the school is for it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:21:52]: So what is that job?
Matt Engler [00:21:54]: Supply administration is per the unit you’re assigned to, the participation in the supply operations to support that unit, whether it’s property accounting, procurement, contracts, reorder, all the elements that would keep a unit supplied, from the MREs over to the motor vehicles that they need, and everything kinda in between.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:22:21]: So you were never slated to actually fight? Or like, was that…
Matt Engler [00:22:26]: No. So, at the time, for every war fighter, there’s like ten people to support them. You know, there’s like ten other jobs that support an infantry man. When you think of a Marine, you really do, you think of the infantry; that’s what they are. They’re a grunt with a rifle, charging a machine gun nest, and for the rest of the Marine Corps, for the 90% of the Marines that sit behind them, those are our most celebrated people. It takes a lot to be an infantryman, you know? Not everybody is going to be that and there’s a ton of other stuff that needs to exist so that person can go out and effectively do their job. And supply being one of those things. It’s so funny, like, every different part of the Marine Corps tries to have, like, their claim to fame. Well, you couldn’t do it without bullets and bombs and I’m supply, I’ve gotta order those for you. You couldn’t get to the front line without the vehicle to drive you up there. You know, everybody tries to be the hero, and really, at the end of the day, the infantry man is—we all know. We all know the deal. They are the one that the rest of us are there to make sure they have what they need to go out and fight the war for sure.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:23:34]: So you’re in North Carolina.
Matt Engler [00:23:35]: North Carolina. School was easy, right? Look, to get into the Corps, you don’t have to be an Einstein, right? You know, they’ll take you no matter what, kind of, and then they’ll train you up to be what it is you need to be. So school was easy. It was super simple. I think this is an organization that really understands what they’re working with. The average age of a Marine is 19 and they are the best in the world at what they do. So that means the organization took time to put into play processes and procedures that make sense for an average-aged 19-year old with a high school education to come in and do, and do it very effectively, do it very well, on a global scale, that the consequences equal death. They’re real. They’re about as real as they get. So they did that. They built systems to make, again, once going back, to make people successful. So school was that easy and I liked it, it was interesting, it wasn’t very challenging. But I liked it, I was good at it. I think I graduated in the top three in my class. And again, I’m not trying to oversell that, it is what it is.
And at the end of that school is when you get your orders. That’s where you get your orders, where you’re gonna be stationed, and I hit the jackpot. I got stationed in Marine Corps Base, Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, which was—I felt like it was like this, like almost like this spiritual thing that happened. I don’t know. I was hoping I’d get Hawaii; nobody ever gets Hawaii. And I got it, you know, so I’m going to paradise. That’s where I’m going to be stationed. I couldn’t believe it; as a private, I was going to the best station in the world.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:25:53]: The best station just ‘cause of the surroundings?
Matt Engler [00:23:35]: Right. I have yet to meet somebody where I say, man, Hawaii would be a great place to go, and they said no.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:26:08]: Nah, I’d rather be in Cleveland.
Matt Engler [00:26:10]: It’s okay. You know, whatever, it’s fine, you know, you might like it. No. Everybody says, oh my god, Hawaii! That’s absolutely—it’s gotta be, like, one of the top destinations in the world, you know, or at least the thought of it. I was pumped. I was so excited. There were two other guys that I went through school with who got stationed there as well, so I’m, like, going with a couple people I know and these guys I’ve been partying with for the past five weeks, it’s gonna be great, right? Since it was such a faraway station, they let me come home—I think I got 20 days leave before I had to report. And, it looked the same. I came back home, 16 days of partying, a few days of, like, cleaning out, and I can remember, I got on the plane and I’m flying to Hawaii.
I’m just, like, replaying the debauchery of the past 20, and said, man, I’ve gotta stop doing this. This is not gonna work. I was scared. I didn’t—so I made myself this promise, right? Once again, it was, like, Louisiana-centered. New Orleans is the problem, again. I’m going probably the farthest you can get from New Orleans. I’m gonna be out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And you know, here on out, it’s just drinking. It’s just drinking. That’s all I’m gonna do, is drink. Which is fine, right? You can drink, there’s very little consequence to it, and it’s accepted. It’s not promoted in the Marine Corps by any stretch of the imagination, but they get it, for sure. It’s, like, a very warrior culture, you know? At times, it can be celebrated.
I can remember going on, like, platoon runs on a Friday morning where it was dollar night at the E-club, the Enlisted Club, the night before. And the person who drank the most, who partied the hardest and still finished the run the next day, you looked at them, and they were just a giant, right? They were a Spartan. They could go out and party as hard as they wanted and then today, they’re still tough enough to get out here and run ten miles, you know? It was something that was celebrated.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:28:18]: Let me just jump in. What is the E-club? There’s like a specific, like, nightclubs that cater to Marines? To enlisted people?
Matt Engler [00:28:30]: So on base, it’s a city. You know, it’s a city made up of military or military-related people, so loved ones, wives, husbands, family of people who are currently serving. So on the base, yeah, I mean, you have all the same stuff. You’re gonna have a place to worship.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:28:51]: A bakery. A grocery.
Matt Engler [00:28:53]: Correct. You have gas stations, so on and so forth, and then you’re gonna have a couple of bars, right? So you have the Enlisted Club and the Officers’ Club. So most of the military is enlisted, meaning you don’t have a college degree, you’re not an officer, you’re just, you know, you came kind of straight of high school and now you’re in the military, you’re an enlisted person, and that’s that. You’ve got officers, they do have a college degree, they have officer training. So they’re higher up on the hierarchy and very much so—specifically for social reasons, they’re split off from the enlisted. There are kind of two sides to the military ranking system. So you have two different places to party.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:29:28]: So you’re not really mingling.
Matt Engler [00:29:30]: Not really mingling, no. Not really mingling. You know, at first, it was like a weekend thing. You know, I would work during the week, go out and party Friday/Saturday, kind of recover on Sunday, and then Monday I’d go to the job. Then it became a Thursday thing at the E-club. And before I knew it, drinking every night. Drinking to wake up in the morning. Drinking to go to bed at night. Drinking to just drink. It was the deal. It didn’t get any different. It stayed very much the same. It was just a substance that I became committed to versus something illegal. And that’s really the only thing—I was just staying away from something illegal that would get me in trouble on a drug test. That was it. That was the only difference that was happening in my life at the moment.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:30:21]: Got it. So you’re sitting on the plane going to Hawaii and you made yourself a promise that you’re only drinking.
Matt Engler [00:30:27]: That’s it. Only drinking. At the time, like, I was, like, proud of myself over the choice. Like, yeah, this is gonna work! I should have just been doing this forever and I would have never had to go through any of the difficulty. This is gonna work. Good plan. Can’t believe I didn’t think of it before now. But I’m glad I did because this is the only time—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:30:46]: I can’t believe nobody else thought of that plan, you know?
Matt Engler [00:30:49]: Right, why didn’t anybody else think of it? I think they have thought of it today, what do you call it?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:30:53]: California sober?
Matt Engler [00:30:54]: Yeah! [Laughter] Well, I guess I was ahead of my time, right? [Laughter] And it didn’t work for me. It didn’t work. It could have never worked for me. The only thing that it did was change what the substance looked like, for sure.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:11]: What’s your financial situation throughout this whole thing? How do they pay? Do you get paid? How does that work?
Matt Engler [00:31:18]: On the first and fifteenth of every month, you get a very small direct deposit. But it happens every first and fifteenth, for sure. It’s coming in, very small direct deposit. I think at the time, I think I was making—I think I was making like $20,000 a year as a private, and so whatever that turns into, $800 a month, whatever it is.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:38]: But you don’t have a lot of expenses, right? Because you don’t have to pay for lodging, you don’t have to pay for food technically, right?
Matt Engler [00:31:45]: Right. So all of the basics, they’re covered. Three squares a day, three meals a day, life in the barracks. And life in the barracks looks like life in the dorm. You know, it’s a studio-style, apartment living, four people to a room, bunk beds, one bathroom for y’all to share, one full bath for y’all to share. But it was nice. It was nice. There was nothing about it that was uncomfortable. It was a good place to live. And like you said, all of my needs were met.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:19]: So you have basically $20,000 of discretionary income, sort of, right? You don’t really need money for anything else.
Matt Engler [00:32:25]: Correct. I mean, insurance, I think, was like five bucks a paycheck. You know, and you never used it, because you had a physician attached to your unit, so you’d just go to MedCo. So there was no copays for the medication, there was nothing. There was no expense. It was just for you. And like you said, totally discretionary.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:54]: Is that income taxed?
Matt Engler [00:32:55]: Oh yeah. Stat. For sure.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:59]: Cool. So you have $20,000 to play with, basically, a year.
Matt Engler [00:33:02]: Right, correct. All of that was going to booze, at the time. Almost every dollar of that was going to booze.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:33:09]: You weren’t saving for your, like, future home.
Matt Engler [00:33:13]: No, no. It was probably every pay period, I had zero dollars for three days leading up to the next time I got a direct deposit. So there were a few days where nothing was happening, for sure, because there was no money to fund it. But at the time, like, I really thought life was good. This was a thing—I could manage this way. And it’s kinda because all that stuff that you just said. You know, I had lodging, I had food. There was really nothing else to put a burden on me. So everything could be focused on doing what I had to do to go drink. All of my energy could be put there. Nothing would distract me from it. Every dollar that hit my bank account was open and available to the act of drinking.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:34:01]: So you land in paradise.
Matt Engler [00:34:03]: I land in paradise. And when I got there, like, at first, I was really good at being a marine. I could follow orders. You tell me what you want, I will make that happen. I’ll get it done, for sure.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:34:19]: You’re not the kid with the rebellious streak.
Matt Engler [00:34:22]: No, no. Not at all. I liked being part of that system. I didn’t have to come up with a whole lot of new ideas. I could just take your idea and make it really great. Take your order and do it really great. I was very, very good at understanding that my job was to make my superior look really good. So I understood it, I didn’t need a claim, I didn’t need recognition, nothing. I had what I needed and that’s all I was interested in. And look, and I wasn’t dumb. You know, I was a pretty bright guy. So everything that would come across my desk, I picked it up very quickly, I did it very well, and I started to get the recognition. And the way you get—or the way I got recognition in the Corps was I started to get more responsibility. That was it. I would be rewarded with—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:35:23]: More jobs.
Matt Engler [00:35:24]: More jobs, that was it. But comparatively speaking, there were a ton of privates there, who all they did all day was sweep the supply warehouse or cut the grass outside. You know, I had an actual job. I was a property accountant. And so I was good at counting all the stuff and getting it in the system, all my numbers always matched up and added up, and everything—I knew where all of the serial numbers were, I knew where all the stuff that my unit owned was, and I did it well, I took a lot of pride in it, and I always knocked it out of the park. So I would get rewarded with, like I said, increased responsibility.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:36:03]: You moved up the ladder.
Matt Engler [00:36:04]: Right, right.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:36:06]: So what changes in Hawaii?
Matt Engler [00:36:08]: So I had never really had success before. I was always kind of told I had potential, ability, capability, those types of things, but I’d never really seen what success looked like. And I got a taste of it. I wound up getting put in rooms with people that, you know, I looked at as high performers. I wound up in rooms with officers or senior enlisted that, as a young Marine, I was shocked that I was there. Those same people started saying, wow, this guy is capable. And I wound up getting put into a specific section of my supply platoon where I was writing DoD contracts, managing Department of Defense contracts. I had the GSA credit card. There was, like, one credit card in my unit, and I had it. It was cool. I felt special, you know, as a result of it. I liked it. There was some serious pride and ego that started to get developed in that, you know, I’m a lance corporal with a government credit card that I don’t even know the limit on. You know, it’s that big. I figured I could buy a tank on the thing or something, you know? You could just swipe it wherever and the government was paying the bill.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:37:38]: You were kind of holding the purse strings of the unit.
Matt Engler [00:37:40]: Right, right. And so there was a couple of things when I look back on it, they really trusted me. They really trusted me. And it was born out of some performance stuff, but also the fact that, look, I wore the uniform. I swore an oath, the same oath that they did. And so there’s some mixed feelings on my side, and we’ll see why. But at the time, I really felt like I was getting rewarded for a lot of hard work. So, like, how can I have all this going on for me professionally, be having all this fun, and there be any problem with that? But there was still, like, this nagging thought in the back of my head—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:38:22]: That you hadn’t fixed anything.
Matt Engler [00:38:24]: Intellectually, I knew that, right? In reality, I did know. But I could shut it up. I could shut that thought up and keep going, doing what I was doing.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:38:35]: It’s like the curse of every functional drug addict, you know? Every functional alcoholic. That’s the hardest thing to deal with, I found.
Matt Engler [00:38:42]: Right, right. For sure.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:38:45]: My life’s working. What do you want from me? What’s wrong with what I’m doing? You know, that kind of thing.
Matt Engler [00:38:49]: Yeah, other people can go and do this. Why is it different when I’m doing it? You know, what’s the big deal? Tell me I’m living poorly. I’m in paradise. I’m wearing a uniform that, like, less than 10% of people in the United States ever wore, right? I’m writing government Department of Defense contracts with this credit card in my back pocket. I’m in rooms with people that no other person of my rank is ever gonna be invited to. I’m getting more responsibility by the day. You’re just judgmental, you know, at that point.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:39:38]: You’re just bitter and jealous.
Matt Engler [00:39:40]: Yeah! Stop being resentful. Go get a job.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:39:42]: Yeah, seriously. Go do something with your life.
Matt Engler [00:39:44]: Go figure out your life. Yeah, right, right. So that’s how I could shut it up. But what is that? That’s pride. You know, that’s pride, that’s ego, all of that is a complete lie. None of that is real. And it was one of those nifty things to do to keep up and shut up the voice that was telling me I needed to do something different to deny it, right?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:40:09]: So you’re staying on your pledge of just alcohol?
Matt Engler [00:40:13]: Staying on my pledge of just alcohol. And there’s this thing that happens to a lot of people who join the service, specifically in a time of war. I’ll tell you, I think today, I’m really happy it didn’t happen. There are times when I think differently, like I missed something and it was something I really wanted. I think for the most part, I’m happy that it didn’t work out. But I really wanted to go to war. I really did. And I don’t know if it was this internal thing or if it was an external thing. You know, I don’t know if I really wanted to for me, because I felt a drive or motivation to go do it, or I felt like it was important, or if because I was part of the larger Marine Corps and the larger Marine Corps felt like it was important, that that’s why I wanted to go. Nonetheless, I don’t care where we split the hair.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:41:01]: Did it have something to do with legitimizing your, like, I’m a solider and a soldier fights. A soldier doesn’t sit in the office; a soldier fights, like that kind of think?
Matt Engler [00:41:10]: Yes. I think absolutely. And that’s a good piece of perspective have on it. And I do believe that, yeah. I think—you know; I claim to be a warrior. Am I really a warrior?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:41:26]: Let me prove it to myself.
Matt Engler [00:41:27]: Right. And so I wanted to go. I volunteered. I volunteered to go on a deployment with a unit that was not mine. It was second battalion, third Marines, which was an infantry unit. They needed some additional people to go and so I volunteered to go. My supply chief got me on the deployment. So I go to a work up. But along the way, there’s a martial arts course, right? And at this point, I’d done a lot of martial arts, I was in the class, and this guy messed up a move on me and I broke my shoulder. Broke my collar bone, broke my shoulder. The collarbone came out of the skin, tore my bicep off, tore my triceps off. I’m trying to just sum up, like, it was a really gnarly shoulder injury, okay? I’m off the deployment. I’m getting flown back to Oahu to Tripler Army Medical Center. I go in for a surgery and I was devastated. I was devastated. What a numbskull kind of thing to get hurt over, you know? You’re like two weeks away from—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:42:36]: From achieving your dream.
Matt Engler [00:42:37]: Right. At least the dream at the time, right? And I get hurt ‘cause we’re, like, playing martial arts, you know? I was devastated and I wasn’t okay right then. It hit me really hard, right? And so I had the surgery and I get a prescription: OxyContin. And I want to play the sob story of I was so let down, I was so disappointed, and blah, blah, blah, blah. Truth be told, it goes back to the same thing. I like the way drugs make me feel. I keep doing them. And I had just gotten a free pass to do the drug that I always really wanted to do anyways: opiates. In any form. Be it pain pills or heroin, that’s the feeling that I liked the most, for sure. So I got a free pass, you know?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:43:36]: Now you were allowed to do this.
Matt Engler [00:43:37]: Yeah. I could pop on the drug screen. The only thing that was preventing me from doing them in the first place, now I have a doctor’s order that says that doesn’t apply anymore.
So, really quickly, really quickly, I started doctor shopping at Tripler. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. The pharmacy is unconnected. But I had three doctors writing me prescriptions all at the same time, all at the same hospital. And so there’s a couple of things that are mixed in there. One, I have a legitimate injury, so I have an MRI to support it. I have a surgery that says I am in pain. And I think it’s very difficult for a doctor faced with that kind of proof to say, oh no, you’re not getting the prescription. Two, I had, like, the all-American respectability of the uniform. So kind of that thing that says, you know, our people aren’t drug addicts. We can clearly see on his MRI he’s got a terrible shoulder injury with surgical repair. I think all of that folds into, for me, somebody who is gonna manipulate and abuse it, kinda like the perfect storm for them, right? And for me, too. But it gets very, very difficult for them to say anything other than, here’s the prescription. So that’s what I did. That part of it, it didn’t last a long time.
I think my sergeant major, at the time, a sergeant major. A sergeant major is usually, he or she, they’ve been in for a long time, they’ve seen a lot, they’ve done a lot, they are enlisted, and they’re kinda like the hardest person in the unit, right? They’re old, they’re salty, and you never wanna get—their direct focus is, like, personnel management administration. So they’re the one that’s there and kinda keeps all the Marines in line, you know, kinda like a disciplinarian kind of figure. So I get called into his office and he’s got this stack of paperwork sitting on his desk and he’s like, pointing to it in a very accusatory kind of way, kinda telling me to explain what that is, and I have no idea what that is. It’s just a stack of paperwork. Like, tell me what it is and I’ll respond to you, you know? And so he finally did. He said, this is all of your prescriptions over the past six months.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:46:14]: What the hell is going on?
Matt Engler [00:46:15]: What is going on? So he thought that I was getting them and selling them just because of the quantity of the prescription. That was the only thing that made sense to him in that somebody would get this many so they could sell this many. So, it was easy to rebut. You know, in no way was I selling any of these things. I’m taking them all. These are for me. Guy, they’re a legitimate prescription based in a legitimate injury and I’m just following the doctor’s orders, you know? I kind of deflected using that, hey, the doctor tells me to take them, they’re medicine, it’s fine. So I don’t know if he really bought it or not, I have no idea. I think he was handcuffed to the extent because I wasn’t wrong in what I was saying. I think there was a legitimate defense there. They were a legit prescription. I think the doctor held a lot more liability than me at the time.
So they did a couple of things. They sent me over to the substance abuse counseling officer on base to do some intervention stuff with me. Then when I got there, I got him to see things my way too, that there was a legitimate injury, I have legitimate pain and legitimately need some of the prescriptions, at least. And so the result was that only one doctor could prescribe me pain pills. So I didn’t lose them all, right, I didn’t lose them all, but I did lose like, two-thirds of my dope.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:47:49]: That’s brutal, man.
Matt Engler [00:47:50]: Yeah, that’s a problem. That’s a problem for like—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:47:54]: Imagine taking two-thirds of your kid’s Halloween candy.
Matt Engler [00:47:57]: Yeah, right. Or two-thirds of your savings account, gone. Two-thirds of your house, gone. Right? It’s a problem. I just didn’t have enough to make it through the month anymore. And with opiates, I got sick. People get sick when they don’t have. Now, look, it’s not like—it’s not the most terrible sickness on the planet. You know, it’s not Stage IV cancer, right? But it is certainly enough to impact whether or not you can go throughout your day in a reasonable way, right? So that’s the problem.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:48:39]: So what are we doing about it, Matt?
Matt Engler [00:48:41]: The street is always the place. You know, if you have the will, you’ll find a dealer. So I did. Down in Waikiki and found somebody who was selling heroin and started shooting heroin again. The difference between a prescription pain pill and heroin to me is none. They do the exact same thing; heroin is a little bit better at it. The prescription pain pill is a little bit more consistent at it. But at the end of the day—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:49:12]: It’s giving you what you need. How are you funding this?
Matt Engler [00:49:14]: With my paycheck. So I’m not drinking anymore. And so all of my money is, rather than being spent on booze, is being spent on heroin. Which is far more expensive than alcohol. Far, far more expensive. So the paychecks aren’t lasting as long. I will tell you, in order to solve the sickness problem, I am criminally inclined. I know that crime will get the money that I need in order to support the habit. So the credit card, man. The credit card. I’ve still got the card.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:49:53]: You’ve still got the card?
Matt Engler [00:49:55]: I’ve still got the card. Look, the pain pill thing is, like, done and gone now. It was addressed, it was solved. I go right back to being the all-American Marine. There’s even a bit of sympathy for me because I was supposed to deploy, I get this terrible injury, they botch the surgery, I wind up having a couple more, I had three in total to try to fix my shoulder. So there’s even this bit of sympathy. And I’m still performing at my job. I’m still doing a really good job there. And so I kind of go right back to the trusted, celebrated Marine that I had become over time, right? But just now I’m shooting heroin. And, like, nobody knows about it, but I’m shooting heroin. And, so look, the first time I swiped the card, I went to Home Depot, went to Home Depot, I bought a bunch of, like, Dewalt kits.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:50:54]: Those, like, screwdriver kits?
Matt Engler [00:50:56]: Yeah, they have, like, an M pack.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:50:58]: The drills, whatever.
Matt Engler [00:50:59]: Drills, yeah, that’s, like, five or six, like, hand tools that come in this thing. They’re, like, a few hundred bucks. Maybe $700 bucks, whatever it is. So I buy two of those, buy two of those kits. I go to the pawn shop. Because I know if I spend less than $3,000 on the card, it’s considered a micro-purchase. That was their terminology, they called it a micro-purchase, which is crazy. So I know there’s a lot less scrutiny on a less than $3,000 purchase. You don’t have to—I could just sign for it and approve it myself, which is basically, at the end of the day, how it looked. So I swiped the card for under three grand, I take all the stuff, I go pawn it, I get the cash for it, which is kind of like a very difficult thing, right? You don’t get dollar-for-dollar in a pawn shop, you know. The hand tools are like the best of the best, you probably get the most money on those, and it’s still like 30 cents on the dollar, so you’re not getting a ton of money on it, but I got enough. So I get enough, I go to the dope man, I go back to base, I get loaded, and all night long, I’m thinking, NCIS is going to, like, kick in the door.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:52:16]: You just took, like, a really big step now. Now you started stealing from the U.S. government. That’s not breaking and entering in Mrs. Johnson’s suburban, white picket fence home. That’s a little bit of a different league.
Matt Engler [00:52:22]: This is an organization that’s, like, known for getting its pound of flesh, right? And I was worried. I was really scared. And I wasn’t—I don’t know about the ethical or moral issue, but I was, like, scared of getting caught. That’s what I was worried about. I thought for sure I was going to get caught that night. And the next morning I woke up and I wasn’t caught. And I started getting a little bit of confidence about it. And it wound up looking like, man, I committed the perfect crime. I got away with it. Nobody is ever gonna find out about it, there’s no way they could. So I really believe. For me, I did crime a second time because I didn’t get caught the first. For sure. You know? So I did it again. I did it again. I did it again.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:53:18]: So this is what you were doing; you were doing tools, mostly. You were hanging out at Home Depot.
Matt Engler [00:53:23]: Right, tools mostly. It made the most sense. The pawn shop always wanted them. And they were just easy to get and to—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:52:30]: Turn around into cash.
Matt Engler [00:53:32]: Yeah, and get the cash. At the end of the day, you know, if somebody did take a look at some of my purchase history, I could just say, you know, I gave it to this unit, I gave it to that unit, they must have lost them or something, I don’t know. They weren’t like—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:25:53]: It wasn’t a tank. It wasn’t like, where’s the tank?
Matt Engler [00:53:47]: It wasn’t a tank, yeah. Yeah, where’s the bazooka? You know?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:54:01]: It was a drill.
Matt Engler [00:54:02]: Yeah, it’s a drill. Man, I don’t know, some private misplaced it. Who cares? They need a drill now.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:54:06]: We’ll get another drill. What’s the big deal?
Matt Engler [00:54:08]: Yeah. So I figured that could kind of fly under the radar. That’s about as much strategy I put into it, was the lie I would tell if I ever got caught. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough. I needed more. I needed access to more. I wound up getting hooked up with this guy who, he owned a laundromat and he owned a construction company. Or at least that’s what he said. But the laundromat, it was up top, it was like coin laundry, that you would see, and there was a basement in it, and that’s where he sold dope out of. It was like this very movie thing.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:54:50]: Yeah, you had, like, the front, you had the laundromat front.
Matt Engler [00:54:55]: And I got hooked up with him. And he was, like, a tough dude. For all intents and purposes, he was, like, a tough dude. I never got the thought that I should play around with this guy. Get in, get what you need, get out. So one day we get to talking and I’m telling him about swiping the card and, you know, pawning it off and all of that stuff. And he says, man, you know, you should just bring that straight here.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:55:27]: The drills.
Matt Engler [00:55:28]: Yeah, the tools. Just bring that straight here.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:55:30]: Cut out the middle man.
Matt Engler [00:55:31]: Right. And so that was a deal for me, you know, because he would give me more for it in trade.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:55:38]: You’re moving up from 30 cents on the dollar to 60 cents on the dollar, or something like that.
Matt Engler [00:55:41]: Right, double the—because that was worth the dope anyways, you know, he had plenty of it, so he said trade me out.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:55:49]: So you went from buying drugs to the barter system.
Matt Engler [00:55:52]: To the barter system, yeah.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:55:54]: You went back in time, Matt.
Matt Engler [00:55:56]: Yeah, turning back the clock. That’s what I would start doing. And there came a day, he said, man, can you get more? It just so happened to be at a time where, like, I needed more. I needed more dope, so, like, yeah, it was just natural.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:56:02]: How providential.
Matt Engler [00:56:03]: Absolutely. And there was a kind of contract that existed where you could write—it was called a “bulk services agreement.” So you would, like, frontload a contract, stating with a GSA provider. So, like, these are people who are in contract, kind of civilian companies who are in contract with the armed services to provide services over. So it was a bulk services agreement. You could frontload a contract, say I’m going to spend $300,000 with you over the course of time, and then you could just walk into their storefront or on their online portal and you could spend on that contract and receive the goods, right? That’s kind of in a nutshell. Granger Industrial Supply was one of our GSA providers at the time and I wrote one with them. I wrote a contract with them. Bulk services agreement for $300,000. And this is where I was going to start—rather than swiping a card, this is where I was going to start going to get more bigger items, right? Kind of grow the crime a little bit to meet the need. And I had a guy now, right? I had a guy who could take all this stuff off my hands. It worked out for him because he wasn’t trading cash for it, he was trading dope, which he had a ton of, and we were going to do all of this in his laundromat basement.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:57:26]: Now, you were able to funnel the whole contract to the stuff? Or you had to mix it up a little bit, like actually buy some stuff for the Marines too, in that contract?
Matt Engler [00:57:36]: So I never bought anything for the Marines on this particular contract. I think it would have been smarter to, you know?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:57:43]: I’m feeling like it.
Matt Engler [00:57:45]: But I was gravy.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:57:48]: In retrospect, throw them a bone.
Matt Engler [00:58:01]: Yeah, right. But no, my mind was not thinking that way at the time.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:58:05]: So you’re taking $300,000 right now of product and turning it into dope.
Matt Engler [00:58:10]: Correct.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:58:11]: You’re funded, man.
Matt Engler [00:58:13]: I’m funded. I just solved the problem, right? I just solved the problem. The problem was I always ran out of money for dope. Now—
Shlomo Hoffman [00:58:19]: You have a lot of money and a lot of dope.
Matt Engler [00:58:23]: Right. And we’ve really set money aside. Like you said, we’ve gone back in time; we’re bartering. You know? And it’s not even with my stuff, I’m just stealing it and I’m moving it to another place and getting dope for it. Pretty simple, right? So things were good at this point in time. They were good. It got a little wild. One day I go over to the base motor transport, which was managed by my unit. I got a box truck. I got a box truck, like a U-Haul-looking truck, and I drive down to Honolulu where the Granger storefront, and I went on a spending spree, right? And I even told—they even looked at me kind of cross. I said guys, it’s like budget time, if we don’t spend it, we lose it. You know, this is just a military thing, right? I’ve just got to make sure all of these dollars are gone, so I need $30,000 of whatever you have in your warehouse loaded in the truck. And so they did it, no problem, right? No problem. We loaded it in the military vehicle, which it’s a box truck, but the military owned it, right? So the military vehicle gets loaded with all of this stuff, I drive it to the laundromat.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:59:38]: How are you filling up the $30,000 we’re talking about? We’re not talking about high-end products, are we? That’s a lot of Windex. [Laughter]
Matt Engler [00:59:44]: It’s anything from the drill packages to welders, saws, you know, power equipment, I bought a Bobcat one time, like an earth, dirt-moving Bobcat. Like, you know, it’s anything that they had in there that I knew this guy, as somebody who at least claimed to own a construction company, would be interested in. So it’s those kinds of very tool-oriented things. Which, $30,000 worth of that stuff is not a tremendous amount, right? They could come with some expense; you could get there pretty quickly. And I take it down to him, I kind of, again, roll up the box door of the box truck, and he looks in it and he says, this is great, let’s go down. And I walk away from there, you know, with $15,000 to $20,000 worth of dope, heroin and meth.
Shlomo Hoffman [01:00:43]: Now where are you storing all of this? How fast are you burning through $20,000 worth of dope?
Matt Engler [01:00:49]: So I had too much for me. You know, there was no way, I’m gonna OD. But I still have a cash thing. So now I’ve got a way that I can also make some cash and keep all the dope. So I called them my five superstars. I had five guys who were around Hawaii that would buy from me.
Shlomo Hoffman [01:01:12]: Oh, so now you started dealing drugs.
Matt Engler [01:01:14]: Now I started dealing.
[END OF RECORDED AUDIO]
“Strength of the Titans”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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