Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point --
With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) undeniably in our presence, Marines and Sailors alike have been impacted, some more than others. When U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Matthew T. Schulz arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, California, Jan. 27, 2020, COVID-19 was just a rumor. But by the end of his boot camp experience, the country had implemented the stay at home order and their graduation had been cancelled. This was only the first obstacle that would keep him separated from his fiancée and her newborn daughter.
Schulz first looked into the Marine Corps when a veteran at his church asked him about being a machine mechanic for the Corps. He was hesitant, at first thinking the military wasn’t something he wanted to do, and then he met Aleigha Breneman. She had plans on joining the Navy and was eventually was able to convince him to talk to a recruiter and see what opportunities were available to him.
Now both poolees, they started routinely going to the gym together, growing closer and closer together. Before Breneman was able to go to recruit training for the Navy, she found out she was pregnant and couldn’t ship out, she turned her focus to being a full time mother. Schulz supported her through everything, he went to every appointment and was there when she gave birth. Schulz said it was love at first sight and they decided to get married so he can support her and the baby. Schulz also decided to adopt Breneman’s daughter Magnolia (Maggie) and plans to raise her as his own. Schulz left for recruit training a mere two months after Maggie was born, leaving Breneman to raise her with the help of his parents in Iowa.
During recruit training, Schulz had managed to wedge a picture of Breneman and Maggie in his cover and would periodically take his cover off to look at it to give him an extra boost of motivation and keep going. His mantra became, “Do it for Aleigha; do it for Maggie.”
Many of the recruits were visibly upset when they received the news that they would not be able to celebrate earning the title of Marine with their families after a long 13 weeks of training. They all banded together to make sure that no one was going to be left behind, and called themselves the 78 brothers.
“I tried to distract myself by getting ready for the crucible,” said Schulz. “I was on my knees crying, packing my main pack and my squad leader walked up to me. He physically picked me up and said ‘We’re all going through hard times, this is difficult, we’re here for you.”
Although Schulz missed out on many of his daughter’s firsts, he said he did not regret joining the Corps since the decision was one that would support his family.
Traditionally, new Marines are granted a ten day leave period when they return home prior to leaving for their next training evolution. Schulz and Breneman had intended to get married at this time and begin the adoption process. However by the time it came for that, military installations across the U.S. had stopped all non-essential movement of service members due to COVID-19.
“It’s been hard being away,” said Schulz. “Because my family, especially Aleigha, was my biggest source of comfort. I’d turn to her with problems, or things that were bothering me, or causing stress. There have been times where I will start to regret my choice. But then I remember my end goal and why I’m here and the doubts go away.”
Immediately following recruit training, Schulz reported to Marine Combat Training at Camp Pendleton, California. Upon graduation, he automatically left for Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point for his Military Occupation Specialty training. By this time Schulz had gone five months without his family due to restrictions put in place for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and was eager to see them.
“It took away a large part of what makes me who I am,” said Schulz. “ Someone who takes pride in taking care of my family, and I don’t feel like I can to that as well, if at all, from a thousand miles away.”
In June 2020, Schulz became a full time Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training (CNATT) cryogenics student, with further restrictions on taking leave due to COVID-19 and his student schedule. Finally after six months apart, Breneman and her daughter were able to make a three day trip down to MCAS Cherry Point to visit.
“It was one of the first times since I left that I felt truly happy,” said Schulz. “I felt complete in a way, all of my family, together for the first time in six months. Seeing them for the first time was like a dream come true. Like all of the sudden being gone for so long was worth it, for that moment.”
Schulz will graduate from CNATT in September, and by the time he makes it to his first duty station in the Fleet Marine Force, he will have been separated from his family for almost a year. His hope is that restrictions put in place by COVID-19 will have lifted enough for him to finally marry Breneman and adopt Maggie as his own.
“She gives me somewhere to fall back to when things are hard and stressful,” said Schulz. “I did it all the time during boot camp, and still do it, although it’s all over the phone now. I can’t wait till we’re together again as a family, so I can have that support again. I can have someone to go home to after a stressful day at work, or to celebrate with when things are good.”
Restrictions and preventative measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 have impacted everyone differently. For Schulz, perseverance will soon pay off as he begins his career at his first duty station and brings his family together once and for all.
(U.S. Marine Corps feature by Lance Cpl. Aliannah T. Bartok)