Eric Mattson’s life isn’t going as planned. The 36-year-old Texan was a career military guy through and through. First, he was a Marine for eight years; then after a brief stint as a civilian, he returned with a solid lifetime career plan in the Army.
“I fully intended to stay in for 30 years,” says Mattson. “I was going to be there as long as they would have me.”
But by 2011, Mattson started to notice some ominous signs: “I was having problems with my gait while walking, some memory and cognitive issues, muscle twitching and stiffness, some nerve pain as well.” After a number of doctor visits turned up no definitive answers, the soldier finally — in October 2011 — received a diagnosis from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of neurology: He had ALS. At that moment, he realized his plans for the future were shattered.
At the time of his diagnosis, Eric Mattson was just hitting his stride with his Army career, doing work that he loved as military fire chief at Fort Rucker, a major U.S. Army post located in southeastern Alabama. As a sergeant first class, the highly decorated soldier was then into his eighth year in the Army and on a leadership fast track, serving as the non-commissioned officer in charge of all military fire fighters at the Army installation. But now, his military career and life as he knew it were in for major changes.
Fast-forward to the present, and you’ll find that — all things considered — civilian first class Mattson is doing pretty well indeed. After his medical retirement from the Army, he and his wife Karen, who were married only a few months before his diagnosis, returned to Eric’s roots in Texas. The Mattsons have just moved in to a brand new home in Aubrey, a small town of 2,500 about an hour north of Dallas and not too far from where Eric lived as a child. Karen is expecting their first child. No mystery here: “Our son, who will be named Gabriel, is due August 29.” Eric also has an 11-year-old daughter, Amber, from a previous marriage.
Though his disease is progressing, it’s not at a rapid rate. “I’m still able to walk,” he says, “though if it’s cold I get really stiff, so I use a cane and walk slowly. In warmer weather I do pretty well. I can drive, I can feed myself, I can dress myself for the most part — small buttons give me difficulty. I’m experiencing some upper body strength loss, particularly in my hands, fingers and shoulders.”
Mattson says that occupational and physical therapy help with his walking ability and fine motor skills. During their extended move from Alabama back to Texas, he stopped his therapy sessions, but since they’ve settled in, he’s getting back into his OT/PT regimens.
Now that he’s out of the military, living in a small town in Texas and coping with his disease, how does he spend his days? Well, he’s a motivational speaker. One might think that learning you have ALS would have the opposite effect, but Eric Mattson is here to tell you: “There is life with ALS.”
He says he’s always been a leader who likes to motivate his people. “I pushed my soldiers pretty hard,” he says. “I demanded accountability and taught them to be tough, strong individuals. When I had to retire from the Army, I wanted to continue to do that and help folks in civilian life.
“I think people can do great things if they have the right mindset.”
These days, Mattson likes to “go to high schools and churches and talk to kids, often underprivileged, about leadership, success, perseverance, fortitude, that sort of thing.” He hopes to be speaking on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association soon.
“My message isn’t just about ALS; it’s about understanding the inner potential that people have and understanding that there’s more to life than their problems; they can’t let things bring them down. A lot of my message is: Be the best person you can be.”
How can an individual who has received a devastating diagnosis such as his maintain such a positive outlook on life? “I’d be lying to you if I said we weren’t initially upset; it’s definitely taken a toll on our family. However, our extended family has been really supportive of me and my wife. That’s helped a lot.
“But I’ve got to say that this entire situation has been a very spiritual thing for me. You know, it only takes one visit to the doctor to bring you to your knees. God (or whomever you worship) has a way of putting you where you need to be at a certain time in your life. I believe we’re all placed on this good earth for a purpose, and you have to find what that reason is. I honestly believe that, after my diagnosis, my place in this world was to help other people.
“Feeling sorry for myself, being negative isn’t going to help the situation. Being positive, taking care of my family, helping other people, being the best I can be … Those are the things that are important to me now.”
Since their relocation to Texas, Mattson has attended his first MDA/ALS Clinic at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, which he found to be an encouraging experience. The medical personnel there “all think I’m doing pretty well for a guy who has ALS.” While talking with the nurses during the clinic visit, his positive approach to life with ALS became apparent and they helped put him in touch with the MDA regional office in Dallas, where Mattson immediately volunteered his services as a motivational speaker. There are already discussions about him speaking to fire fighters in the Dallas area. (The International Association of Fire Fighters is one of MDA's national sponsors.)
In addition to the invaluable support Mattson has received from his wife and family, he also feels indebted to his military family. “The people I worked for at Fort Rucker and throughout my military career instilled in me the drive and discipline to be successful.” He says the many leaders he had over the years were instrumental in mentoring him, and ultimately preparing him for coping with this thing called ALS.
As Eric Mattson discusses his approach to motivating his audiences, one can’t help thinking that he’s also speaking to himself: “People need to believe in themselves; they’re full of so much potential. Sometimes things that are out of their control get them down; you can’t let that happen. You have to keep on pushing ahead and keep fighting.”
Check out Eric Mattson's Facebook page, “The Lion’s Den,” which contains many inspirational thoughts and writings related to his outlook on life.