TAMPA — In 1998, as a 17-year-old high school student in northern Vermont, Matthew Hall asked his mother if she would sign a consent form to allow him to join the Army early.
She knew if she didn't he would just complain for a year and join when he was 18, so she signed. She was making $14,000 a year and paying $1,000 a month in rent, Hall said, so he felt he needed to move on.
"At that point I was an angry teenage boy and the idea of running around with a backpack and blowing some stuff up looked pretty attractive,'' he said.
Hall fought in the Iraq War in 2003 as a gunner on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and as a weapons squad leader on the ground, manning an M240 machine gun and responsible for three to six soldiers, depending on the mission.
His enlistment period ended a couple of months before the troops he commanded were scheduled to leave, and the Army would not let him extend his tour, he said. He felt he was leaving before his work was done.
"I told all my guys' parents, I shook their hands and looked them in the eye and said, 'I can't make any promises, but I'll do everything in my power to make sure your son gets home.' And now, it's like, well, now you're leaving, and they're staying.''
That unfinished mission continued to bother Hall after he returned home. Now a 37-year-old corporate lawyer for the Hill Ward Henderson firm in Tampa, Hall says it's the motivation for all the work he does these days to help veterans.
"I've still got more to give. I didn't get to give it over there, so let me give it over here,'' he said. "Let me help those guys that weren't lucky enough to come home with their fingers and their toes.''
At the University of Florida law school, he found there was no scholarship for veterans so he helped start one named in honor of the late Lt. Col. James T. Armstrong, a Vietnam veteran and father of a fellow veteran and law student, Daniel K. Armstrong.
Hall helped start the Veterans Legal Assistance Registry, for veterans having legal questions, and volunteers his services. He helped create the Hillsborough County Veterans Treatment Court, which offers a chance for veterans arrested on drug or other charges to complete a pretrial intervention program. It specializes in veterans suffering from service-related mental problems, traumatic brain injury and drug problems.
"Matt Hall is one of the leaders of the mentor cadre,'' said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder, who formerly presided over Veterans Treatment Court and expanded the program to include those charged with felonies.
Aside from making sure that those going through the court are meeting the requirements for pretrial intervention, Hall has brought in more veteran volunteers to serve as mentors.
"This is a young man, as a result of what he experienced, who felt the need to give back to others,'' said Holder, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Hall and a fellow lawyer in his firm donated months of work to help the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4321 in South Tampa get a liquor license that post members never realized they needed. Hall said the VFW had operated since the 1940s under the notion that it was exempt from having to have a liquor license. They weren't.
"So for over 70 years we had a speakeasy right in the heart of Hyde Park,'' he joked.
At that time he was a trustee of the Hyde Park VFW post; now he is commander of it. He started going to the VFW while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts and he came to appreciate how the members help each other and other veterans.
They are people who will help "if you need your light bill paid, if you need a hotel room for the night, if you're having trouble with your family,'' Hall said. "There are a lot of people at the VFW who have different skill sets.''
His latest work is with the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee, which helps veterans who are starting their own businesses. The committee doesn't want to provide handouts, Hall said. "We want to help our veterans by helping them become self-supportive.''
Pat Crenshaw praises Hall for his dedication to fellow veterans. The two met at the VFW and immediately formed a bond, Crenshaw said, because both had been infantry sergeants in Iraq.
Crenshaw, who has memory lapses and other problems from the concussion of two separate close-call bomb blasts in Iraq, said Hall helped get him the job he has now, as a director of a referral service for those in need of a plumber, electrician or handyman.
"He will do anything in the world for you,'' Crenshaw said. "He's always there for you. He's the best friend I ever had.''
Contact Philip Morgan at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.