With 10 years of prior service in the Army and 20 years of work experience as a civilian under his belt, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Cannella reenlisted in the Army in 2006 at the age of 48.
As part of the 101st Airborne Division’s 76th birthday celebration, Cannella, a 60-year-old man, was recognized as the oldest active-duty Soldier serving in the division. Cannella is a truck master assigned to 74th Transportation Company, 129th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 101st Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade, 101st Abn. Div.
“We affectionately call him ‘Old Man Cannella,’ but his age has no impact on his ability to perform to the highest standard,” said Capt. Brian Mathews, commander of 74th CTC, 129th CSSB, 101st Abn. Div. Sust. Bde., 101st Abn. Div..
In the past six months, Cannella has tasked, coordinated and executed more than 200 mission support orders supporting the 101st Abn. Div. and Fort Campbell, Mathews said. Cannella also was essential to the organization of transporting more than 6,500 Soldiers while supporting three battalion field training exercises, one off-post certification exercise, one Joint Readiness Training Center rotation and Hurricane Florence response efforts.
“Cannella is the epitome of a senior noncommissioned officer,” Mathews said. “As the company’s truck master, he is responsible for managing all external support requirements for the organization.”
A decade of soldiering
After graduating from a high school in New Jersey, Cannella, a young man born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, had a decision to make – college or the Army. At 17 and a half years old, with his parents’ signatures, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1976.
“I didn’t want to burden my Family with college tuition money, so I got into the Army and I think everyone thought it was a good idea,” Cannella said. “I was a cocky kid running around saying I was a tough guy, and the Army taught me different. The Army humbled me a lot … it humbled me until I was bruised. That turned me around real fast.”
Cannella’s first duty station was in Germany and his military occupation specialty was infantryman, aka 11B. He said his first few years in the Army were shaped by leaders who served during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.
“They were all Vietnam combat seasoned veterans that completed two or three tours of Vietnam, so it wasn’t like ‘hey, how are you doing?’ It was more of a hard-knocks life, which made me who I am today,” Cannella said.
Cannella said his interaction with these Soldiers continued to influence his Army career.
“I was so far away from home and I felt like everything was horrible, but after a while I started learning how things worked and people taught me … they were rough on you, they taught you. They didn’t let you go. I was their responsibility and they took pride in that. I learned a lot from that,” he said.
Cannella later served at Fort Campbell from 1979 until 1981.
While serving in Germany, Cannella met his wife, Linda. They have two children together, Donald, 37, and Helen, 35. Now, they have five grandchildren.
After a decade of service to the Army, Cannella decided it was time to transition out. His last duty station was at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he was an instructor at the Noncommissioned officer academy. He regularly worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
With that heavy of a workload, Cannella felt he was neglecting his Family, so he knew it was time for a change.
“One day I realized my children were being raised without a father, so my idea was to get out of the Army, make a million dollars and I would be all set, but that didn’t happen,” he said.
Infantryman to truck driver
When Cannella transitioned out of the Army in 1986, he first got a job washing trucks. Then, for a short stint, he worked as a server at IHOP.
“Infantryman aren’t exactly people people, if you know what I mean,” he said. “So that didn’t work out for very long.”
Then, he enrolled in truck driving school where he earned his commercial driver’s license. He hit the road in a tractor-trailer truck in 1987 and continued to drive trucks across the nation for about 20 years. He has professionally driven 2.5 million miles without an accident.
“For me, being a truck driver worked out really well because I was used to the lifestyle. If you are a Soldier and you get out of the Army and you are looking for a job, but you don’t want to deal with a lot of people … drive a truck for a company,” he said.
Although Cannella thrived as a truck driver, he said he always felt like something was missing.
“I just felt like I needed to go back and finish the job,” he said. “I had done 10 years in the Army and I trained up to fight the enemies of the United States. Back then, we all focused on the Cold War. When I left, I felt like I was missing something. It was like practicing for a play, but never getting to perform.”
Returning to the service
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Cannella was inspired to reenlist in the Army and continue his service to the nation. He reenlisted as a sergeant, completed a 30-day course for basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and eight weeks of advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
“At AIT, I had drill sergeants talking to me all buddy-buddy because of my personality. When I talked to someone, I was respectful so we all got along, no problem,” he said. “My interaction with fellow Soldiers was a different thing. I never lost that old way of doings, so I was a NCO and they were Soldiers and I treated them as such. That’s the way I learned it when I first joined the Army and I haven’t changed.”
Despite his arguing, Cannella had to shed his identity as an infantryman when he reenlisted. Now, his military occupational specialty is motor transport operator, aka 88M.
“The recruiter, who was a chemical guy, said ‘look, my knees are shot. You don’t want to go back into combat arms’ and he asked me what I did after I got out of the Army the first time,” Cannella said. “That was when I started talking about truck driving and the recruiter said ‘man, I’ve got a job for you.’”
Cannella said his civilian work experience set him up for success as a truck master in the Army. In the past 12 years, Cannella has served at Fort Carson, Colorado, Fort Wainwright, Alaska, Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Campbell. He has deployed twice, one 15-month tour to Iraq and one 12-month tour to Afghanistan.
During his first deployment, Cannella relied on his truck-driving knowledge.
“From truck driving, I knew a lot about the trucks logistically. I knew the capabilities of a lot of trucks. I knew the size of the surfaces. I drove [heavy equipment transport], tractor trailer trucks and [line-haul tractor trucks aka M915A5]. I knew their load limitations and maneuverability capabilities. All of that I knew prior to coming into the Army and it helped,” he said.
During his second deployment, Cannella survived his truck being hit during a route clearance.
“People think they know what they are going to do if someone shoots at them … they think they are going to tackle the shooter or something, but when a 500-pound bomb goes off … you’re just like a little child,” he said.
Cannella earned a Combat Action Badge for the incident.
Cannella has high expectations of his Soldiers and treats them like his own children. As a leader, he pulls from his experiences as a young private to guide his young Soldiers today.
“I don’t have a problem working with the privates and explaining to them what I mean if they don’t understand what I am saying. I will slow down and go over it with them again,” he said. “On the flip side, I can yell and scream and cuss like a Sailor. I’m not cussing at them, but … I’m telling them not to be by the truck when it’s moving and to not get run over.”
Cannella said he is not a “my way or the highway kind of guy” but explains to Soldiers why the company does certain tasks and demonstrates why each task is important.
“I have had some young lieutenants who got the idea they were smarter than me because they have college degrees of whatever, but they quickly learned the difference between college and experience,” he said.
Despite the nearly 40-year age difference between Cannella and Mathews, Cannella always shows him respect.
“[Mathews] is my commander and I call him sir. A lot of people might say they couldn’t call someone younger than them ‘sir,’ but it doesn’t bother me. That is his position. When he tells me to execute, I will make the entire company do what is intended. That’s my job. It’s my job to make sure the company is functional and the troops are being taken care of.”
Cannella said some Soldiers get aggravated with him because the company has to work extra hours.
“But guess who’s right there with them,” he said. “Me. I go on every mission that is companywide. I go to every field problem and every hurricane relief.”
The physical demands of serving in the Army at 60 years old are not nearly as challenging to Cannella as learning how to use new technology, he said.
“A lot of things are the same – the weapon systems and the trucks. But these things here,” he said, pointing to his desktop monitor. “These things mess me up. The people who I work with have taught me a lot. Am I good at it? No, it takes me a little while. But I had to learn. I had to adapt and overcome.”
The next generation
Cannella plans to retire in two years at age 62.
“At that point, I think it’s going to be time to turn it back over and let the younger generation have it,” he said.
He and his wife intend to move to Ohio to be near their children.
“I’m not a big fan of Ohio, but I figure after 40 years of putting up with me – she’s stuck by me through it all – she gets to decide where we retire. I’m going to try and buy us a house,” he said.
Cannella credits much of his success – in and out of the Army – to his supportive Family, especially his wife.
“My wife takes care of everything – that’s why I like to call her ‘Household 6,’” he said, chuckling. “She gets up with me at like 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and makes sure I have a cup of coffee and something to eat before I head out the door. She knows more about uniforms than I do. She’s on it, but she also is so down to Earth.”