Part of a series where individuals share their stories of misfortune and the recipes that got them through.
Bʏ Yᴜɴɢ B. | Mᴀʏ 5ᴛʜ, 2018
I met Matty, an Iraq War veteran, at a pojangmacha (outdoor Korean tent bar) in Pohang, South Korea. He was wearing a facial prosthetic (a mask). His face was heavily scarred from burns. He spoke in a jarringly raspy and low type of whisper. When I approached him, he was examining his face with a hand mirror. Below is his story as told to me transcribed as accurately as possible.
Mathew Montgomery, Iraq War Veteran and Burn Victim, Pohang, South Korea
THE UNFORTUNATE STORY
I loved her —
her skin, a skin so smooth without blemish, a cream-colored translucency so delicate you can see her life pulsing away.
How did you get your burns?
On a transport to Fallujah, Iraq, 2004. The desert — it is a faceless landscape. Anonymous, it stretches out towards the horizon without response or echo. All is eventually swallowed by space. A flash of light, suddenly, like Saul of Tarsus hits us outside our Humvee. An increasing ringing in my ears begins to transform into a pulsating serenity, a complete lack of sound — all I can sense is my heart rate accelerating. I have lost my hearing. The over-exposure of my eyes begins to normalize. In these holy lands, I see no God appear before us — only my brothers torn apart, physically and brutally. A putrid smell enters my nostrils, which are closing up like melting wax. My face is on fire. An IED, I assume, as my visions goes dark––I do not see my life flash before me. I let go. Later, I wake up in a hospital, my face heavily bandaged.
How did you end up in Korea?
Military obligations. Of course, I could have stayed home back in Virginia, receiving extensive medical treatments and benefits. But, you see, I couldn’t stay home and face my family and friends again. My face suffered 1st degree burns. Skin graft after skin graft and not a bit of my old self returned. I couldn’t even cry when I saw the sorrow in my family’s eyes when they looked at my face. My tear ducts were heavily damaged. Seeing their expressions of fear and, then, sympathy was like a mirror that followed me constantly, reminding me of what I had lost.
I moved to Korea to get away, and because it was the cosmetic surgery and beauty capital of the world. They used to call me “Pretty Boy Matty,” teasing me in the showers. I was the handsome hero fighting the good fight. “What’s a guy like you fighting in a quagmire like this?” my sergeant would ask. I would just smile and shrug.
“Oh you’ll do just fine, Matty. You’ll do just fine with a body like that. Believe me,” he promised.
I found her on Instagram. She was a model or representative, you might say, for Korean skincare products. I became obsessed about her and her knowledge of skin. She was so pretty and, even more than that, so hopeful and positive. I DM’ed her once to ask if she had any tips for my condition. I sent her photos of my face, you see? She never replied, but I knew she had seen it. It tells you.
She once wrote a blog about how collagen is good for the skin. Research had proven, she wrote, that eating collagen decreases wrinkles, provides hydration, and increases skin-elasticity. Chicken feet is one of the ultimate sources of collagen. It consists of skin, bones, and tendons. The Korean style is my favorite. It is spicy, battered, and they take out the bones and claws that other cuisines might keep––disgusting, if you ask me. It is chewy like the texture of cartilage. This is a mouth-feel I never knew I would come to enjoy until I came to Korea.
Did the feet help?
I’ve tried everything. 11 to 20-step skincare routines, creams, surgery, and chicken feet. Only a facial transplant would help my condition, but these types of transplants are difficult to come by. As years went by, I began to accept the fact that perhaps all these things were lies that I was telling myself –– I was obsessed with skin. I hoped that the chicken feet would somehow catalyze something within — not just something applied topically. Even just a tiny bit of improvement would have been better than nothing. I slowly began to realize that maybe she was right. There was nothing that she nor anyone could do. You see, scars — they don’t work that way. Scars like this tend to stay forever. Scars are like your body stuck in a moment you can never escape.
And now…do you still eat them in hopes of getting better?
Today, I eat them just to eat them.
At that moment, the light rain that fell during our conversation began to pick up in strength. Matty began to gather his things. I had to ask him one last question.
And the recipe…do you know it?
He stood up, but before he left, he placed his hand-mirror on the table in front of me. As he limped towards the bus stop down the road, he glanced back and answered in that unforgettable voice:
“Look inside yourself.”