Diving In

Airman upholds island culture, traditions while serving

Story by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Bates
Photos by Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas with his speargun in the waters of Pokai Bay on Oahu. For Thomas, spearfishing is a way to get in tune with his heritage and nature, and his family eats everything he catches.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas with his speargun in the waters of Pokai Bay on Oahu. For Thomas, spearfishing is a way to get in tune with his heritage and nature, and his family eats everything he catches.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas crisscrosses a patch of barren beach north of Honolulu in a lifted, older style Toyota Tacoma, a truck that is a lot like him: a stalwart, determined workhorse that is both dependable and gets the job done.

Stopping, he gets out, lowers the tailgate and begins changing into a wetsuit. Staring at the Pacific Ocean stretching out before him, he is excited.

“I just love being in the water,” he said.

He grabs some gear – a pair of flippers, a pair of goggles and a speargun – and heads toward the beach.

It’s time to go in.

He wades out until he is waist deep in the crystal blue water and pauses. He looks up to the sky, then says a short prayer and tosses a handful of water over each shoulder.

“Every time I enter the water, I ask it to bless me and keep me safe,” Thomas said. “It’s kind of a tradition where I come from.”

Where he comes from is Guam, a small island in the Pacific that is steeped in a culture of respect for the land and water and the things they provide.

“From an early age, my grandfather taught me to how to be one with nature and the water,” Thomas said. “And he also taught me to respect it because it can be just as dangerous as it is beautiful.”

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas lifts the wheel well cover of a C-17 Globemaster III before conducting preventative maintenance on the aircraft's landing gear. Thomas is a flying crew chief on the C-17 and the C-40 Clipper and is assigned to the 15th Maintenance Group at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas lifts the wheel well cover of a C-17 Globemaster III before conducting preventative maintenance on the aircraft’s landing gear. Thomas is a flying crew chief on the C-17 and the C-40 Clipper and is assigned to the 15th Maintenance Group at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

This is something Thomas became painfully aware of as a teenager. Two of his cousins went out in the water one afternoon and never came back.

“They were just gone,” Thomas said. “Lost to the sea.”

Thomas thinks of them now as he walks deeper into the water and asks them to watch over him. Then, in one effortless motion, he dives below the surf and is immersed in a completely different world.

Instantly, his cares are lost to the beauty around him – the shimmering coral formations, the colorful species of fish and the profound silence this underwater world affords him. But, as amazing as the scenery is, Thomas doesn’t stare for long. This isn’t a sight-seeing trip.

It’s a hunt.

Thomas is a spearfisherman, upholding a centuries-old tradition of fishing where he free-dives and uses a spear gun to capture fish. But even while fishing, he is still respectful of his surroundings.

“I never fish anything I don’t intend to eat,” he said. “It goes back to my upbringing and the lessons my grandfather taught me – respect nature and only take what you need from it.”

Spearfishing isn’t easy. The style takes a strong swimmer who is able to hold his breath for long periods of time and someone with a lot of patience.

“The fish don’t just swim up to you,” Thomas said. “You really have to look for them and try to figure out where they hang out and how they act. It’s hard work, but I really enjoy it.”

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas conducts an engine start on a C-40 Clipper during a maintenance check. Thomas is a flying crew chief who travels with the C-40 to all its destinations.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas conducts an engine start on a C-40 Clipper during a maintenance check. Thomas is a flying crew chief who travels with the C-40 to all its destinations.

Thomas’ passion and dedication isn’t reserved for spearfishing. He brings both to his “real” job, where he works as a flying crew chief on C-17 Globemaster IIIs and C-40 Clippers with the 15th Maintenance Group at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

It’s paying off, too. Thomas was recently named the 2012 Pacific Air Forces crew chief of the year, an honor he shrugs off with casual humility.

“I love what I do, and I just do the best I can every day,” he said.

One of the reasons he loves his job is because it’s hands-on and Thomas is all about using his. Building things, repairing cars, catching wildlife – if it involves hands, Thomas is all over it.

This, too, he attributes to his background.

“Growing up on an island, you learn to be resourceful and make do with what you have,” he said. “And I remember watching my grandfather make everything he needed, and I guess it’s just stuck with me.”

Another thing that’s stuck with him is the island way of life. He’s laid back and cares about family. When he entered the Air Force, he did go through a bit of culture shock, though.

“Yeah, it was crazy at first because there was just so much I didn’t know,” he said. “Everything was so hectic and fast-paced, and I used to ask so many questions people would get annoyed and tell me leave them alone.”

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas prepares to enter the water to spearfish at Waianae Army Beach near Pokai Bay on Oahu. Thomas was taught to spear fish by his grandfather in his native island of Guam.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Thomas prepares to enter the water to spearfish at Waianae Army Beach near Pokai Bay on Oahu. Thomas was taught to spear fish by his grandfather in his native island of Guam.

But then he would retreat to the water and find his groove again.

“When I’m spearfishing, it’s exciting,” he said. “I feel in tune with my heritage and nature, and you forget about all the little things you were worried about. Out there, it’s just me and my thoughts and a lot of beautiful stuff.”

Performing off duty activities that relieve stress is important, say Air Force mental health officials.

“Self-care is important,” said Tech. Sgt. Brian Hornberger, the 359th Medical Operations Squadron mental health flight chief at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. “You should make sure you’re connected to something, whether it’s family, friends or an organization or group where you feel you belong. You should also make time to work out, travel, play sports or read a book.”

Spearfishing isn’t just a stress reliever for Thomas, though. It’s mostly something he simply loves to do that reminds him of his childhood and opens his eyes to new experiences.

“Out there, in the ocean, it’s just a different world,” Thomas said. “Every time I go out there, I see something new, and it’s just so peaceful.”

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