Matt Zeller – United States Army Veteran and Author

[quote style=”boxed”]Never stop learning and always ask questions.[/quote]

Matt Zeller, a native of Rochester, New York, is a consultant on alternative energy issues and works in northern Virginia. In his upcoming, first book, Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan (Just World Books, 2012), Zeller gives a vivid description of what he experienced while serving as an embedded combat adviser with the Afghan security forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2008.

Captain Zeller enlisted into the Army National Guard immediately following the 9/11 attacks and received his officer’s commission via Syracuse University’s Army ROTC program in 2004–at the same time he graduated from Hamilton College with a B.A. in government. (At Hamilton, he was also awarded the David Boren National Security Fellowship.) In 2005, Capt. Zeller graduated first in his class from the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Officer’s basic course. He also graduated from the U.S. Army’s Combat adviser’s course, and in 2006 he completed dual master’s degrees in public administration and international relations from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Zeller’s book originated from a lengthy series of email messages he sent to his friends and family back home, chronicling his time embedded with Afghan forces: texts that he could not even bring himself to revisit until two years after his return from Afghanistan. He has described it as “not a typical war memoir,” because it highlights several rarely exposed aspects of the life of an American soldier, such as the inadequate training he was given before deployment and the difficulties he had reintegrating and adjusting back to civilian life after his return to the U.S. He hopes his work will resonate with other returning soldiers struggling to make sense of their experiences in battle, spark dialogue about the long-term repercussions of the war, and make Americans think more deeply about the many kinds of costs involved before they send troops into combat in the future.

After returning from Afghanistan, Zeller decided to run for Congress. In 2010, he was the Democratic nominee for New York’s 29th Congressional District, running on a strong veterans’ rights platform. Though he was not elected then, Zeller hopes he will have a chance to serve in political office in the future.

What are you working on right now?

Helping American businesses and government organizations like the U.S. Military adopt clean energy.

Where did the idea for your book come from?

I originally didn’t intend to write a book. The book consists of the emails I sent home to my wife, family and friends while I was deployed. The Army told us that we would be taking on one of the most dangerous missions in Afghanistan–training the Afghan army and police. While we were at training at Fort Riley, we participated in a funeral for two of the soldiers we were supposed to replace. Standing in the funeral detail, it really hit home for me that I could die within the next year.

I wanted my family and friends to have the most detailed account of what could have been the last year of my life–so that they’d have something to hold onto should the unthinkable happen. I started sending home a weekly email from training, and kept it up as best I could throughout the deployment. Within a few weeks of arriving in Afghanistan I started getting letters, packages, and email from total strangers. I’d write them back, thanking them for their kind words and support, and asking how they found me. They’d reply that “so-and-so” had forwarded them one of my emails and that they felt compelled to write. Eventually, many started urging me to turn the emails into a book; they felt that a broader audience needed to hear our story. And thus came the book.

What does your typical day look like?

I get up early in the morning and take care of my family. I work till early evening and return home to spend time with my wife and infant daughter.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I seek out the smartest people and recruit them to work with me.

What’s one trend that really excites you?


What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I was a cashier at a local grocery store. I learned that one should treat everyone with kindness, dignity, and humility, because after working that job, I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of their exact opposites.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I’d find a way to pay for graduate school other than via student loans.

As an entrepreneur and author, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Never stop learning and always ask questions.

What is one problem you encountered as an author and entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The self-editing I did to whittle down my manuscript posed, by far, the greatest challenge during the publishing process. Eventually, I learned the best thing I could do was turn it over to trusted friends, as I had become too attached to the material.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

So I’ve always had this crazy idea I call the “Eve Device.” It has to do with upgrading your the first generation iPod. Now, every time a new hardware version comes out, you have to go out and physically buy a new device. There is simply no other way to upgrade, as the hardware components change dramatically from generation to generation. Imagine if you could download a program that would activate a colony of nanobots inside your iPod 1.0 (instead of walking into an Apple Store and buying the iPod 2.0). The program would instruct the nanobots to self-consume the iPod 1.0 and reconstruct the device at the atomic level to iPod 2.0.

So long as the matter never changed from device to device, you would only need to purchase one device (the “Eve Device”) and then upgrade via the web anytime a new hardware version was released. The impact on scarce resources, particularly rare earth metals, would be dramatic. One giant problem is that our understanding of physics is nowhere near ready to build such a device. Should we gain that knowledge, conceivably anything that could be plugged into the web could be upgraded in a similar fashion.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I’d revamp the way the United States funds higher education. The cost of higher education has run rampant to the point where Americans are likely to graduate college with a mortgage worth of debt, just without the home. Americans currently owe more in student loan debt than they do in credit card debt, with current figures putting the debt well in excess of $1 trillion.

Unlike all forms of other debt, student loan debt cannot be wiped out in bankruptcy court—it literally follows one to the grave (and sometimes beyond depending on cosigners). A recent New York Times article highlighted the growing problems with student loans. The article quotes several state government officials (mostly from Ohio) who maintain that today’s students should simply accept loans as inevitable and deal with it. But what these officials fail to realize is that while debt is indeed personal, a generation’s collective debt has a broad impact on all members of society.

Case in point are my wife and me. We own our own home (thanks to my veteran’s benefits, because no bank would have ever lent to us with out a VA-backed mortgage). We’re about to welcome our first child into the world. Indeed, we’re an abnormality when compared to the many in our generation who are forsaking marriage and home ownership to move back in with their parents and work multiple low-paying jobs just to be able to maintain minimum payments to a seemingly endless student loan balance. And on top of it all, the economy still hasn’t rebounded to the extent average Americans would deem beneficial (i.e. significant and sustained improvement in employment, wages, etc.).

In short, my generation cannot find meaningful work, is not buying homes, and is not having babies—all of which will negatively impact the health of our economy, social security, medicare, and mortgage market for many years (if not decades). Indeed, if my generation doesn’t start buying homes or having babies, real estate will continue to stagnate and America could suffer a significant labor shortage in the mid 21st century, respectively.

During my run for Congress in 2010 (NY-29), I made fixing the student loan debt problem a hallmark of my campaign, and advocated the following fix to our current system: I proposed we abandon our current system of public and private student loans as a means of financing higher education and replace it with an idea first advocated by Milton Friedman—the Income Contingent Repayment Plan.

Here’s how it works:

You pick where you want to go to school. If you can self fund, earn enough scholarships, or use the military to finance the cost of your education, then great! But if you don’t have the means to fully fund your education after exploring all these other options, rather than seek out a bank or government loan to fund the cost of your college education, the federal government will pay for what you can’t, in full.

When you graduate or leave school, you will enter the labor force at a special, higher federal income tax rate. The incentive is simple and resoundingly American: work hard, move up in the ranks, make more money, and pay off your debt to the government as quickly as possible. Once your debt has been paid (with the initial expense tied to the inflation rate) you’ll move back down to the regular federal income tax rate, given your level of income.

Right now, if you lose your job, the bank holding/servicing your loan debt does not care if you cannot pay your loan. You miss payments, and they add penalties—with interest. Your credit score drops. And though you may have that million dollar idea that only needs a small business loan to get going—and to help you pay off your student loan debt, grow jobs, and return as a productive member of society—you cannot get the loan because your inability to pay back your student loans has destroyed your credit.

Under my plan, none of that happens. If you lose your job, you aren’t making money and you aren’t paying income taxes—thus, your credit score is fine. You are still free to get that small business loan, start your own company, and run with that million dollar idea. You get the loan, you re-enter the labor force, and you begin repaying your debt to the government at the special tax rate until no debt remains.

Tell us a secret.

I’m a hopeless romantic.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

  1. Google, because it now knows what I’m looking for before I finish typing it.
  2. Siri, because now I don’t have to type.
  3. Reddit, because it’s the greatest, most interesting time-suck in the history of the Internet.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why? Besides mine?

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, because it made me realize that to truly grow, one must always challenge the borders of one’s comfort zone.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

  1. @JoshuaFoust, because he contributes some of the best work on National Security issues, particularly in central Asia, and isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. And because he knows everyone and will retweet the important stuff.
  2. @BearMcCreary, because he is the best composer in American music right now.
  3. @ConanOBrien, because everyone needs a good laugh during the day, and with Coco, it’s guaranteed.

Honorable mention goes to @MayorEmanuel (should it ever be resurrected).

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Yesterday. My daughter’s laugh is infectious.

Who is your hero?

My mom and dad.

How can the American political system be improved?

By changing the way we license television. The broadcast spectrum is owned by every American tax payer. The FCC licenses out the use of that spectrum to corporations on our behalf. Those same corporations charge our political candidates an arm and a leg come election time to access that same spectrum. An informed electorate is best for democracy. The problem with our current system is that to inform the electorate, a political candidate must either be personally very wealthy or very, very good at fundraising.

The problem is that personal wealth and proficient fundraising does not equal good governance; it just equals good money accessing abilities. Having been a candidate for federal office, I can tell you that too much of our representatives’ time is spent having to raise money in order to buy campaign ads come election time. Thus, the FCC should grant free access to all candidates who have received the requisite number of signatures to get on the ballot as a condition of the licensing agreement to air television. This simple change would dramatically lower the monetary bar to run for elected office, and would increase the likelihood that the people with the best ideas would be elected, rather than the people with the most money. We also need a constitutional amendment that states that inalienable rights recognized under the constitution belong to human beings only, not to entities such as corporations.

Who is the most important person in your life?

My wife, because she is my rock.


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