Mat Best Loves ’Merica
Ride Shotgun with Santa Barbara’s Celebrity Soldier in His New Book, ‘Thank You for My Service’
by Tyler Hayden | Published November 21
Mat Best is one of those interesting studies in contrasts. He’s a man’s man not afraid to soul search. A five-tour Army Ranger who wonders if we ever belonged in Iraq. A Second Amendment defender and LGBTQ supporter. A savvy entrepreneur and goofball entertainer. But there’s only one side to Best’s patriotism, and it shines red, white, and blue.
Born and raised in Santa Barbara in a military family, Best joined the U.S. Army straight out of high school. He went on to fight in one of the armed forces’ most elite units before becoming a CIA contractor. Suffice it to say, he’s seen some stuff, which he describes with brutal honesty and gallows humor in his new book, Thank You for My Service, now on the New York Times Best-Seller List. Think Ernie Pyle meets an NC-17 Captain America.
As Best walks readers through his training, where he survived a flesh-eating virus in the swamps of Georgia, and his battlefield experience, including kicking down doors in Ramadi and blowing up cars full of enemy combatants, he makes something very clear ― he enjoyed his job. A lot. And he doesn’t apologize for that. Best explains, in uncompromising detail, the attraction of the warrior mentality and how it fed his most primal urges. He also talks about how it eventually absorbed his whole identity and why it was so hard to shake as a civilian.
Even before the book’s release, Best was a YouTube star. Many of his videos, like his writing, appeal mostly to a male audience, or anyone else who might like guns, whiskey, and women. Other clips riff, with both comedy and sincerity, on the unique experience of veterans. Best’s content clearly struck a chord, because he’s racked up millions of views and followers across the social mediaverse.
Best parlayed that popularity into business ventures and veteran advocacy. He’s since relocated to San Antonio, Texas, where he helps run a clothing company, a whiskey distillery, and a growing coffee-roasting empire, all of which prioritize hiring former service members. The Independent talked to him by phone recently between meetings.
Best’s book is available locally at both Chaucer’s and The Book Den. It’s also on Amazon.com.
The Socially Liberal Gun Guy
Tell me about your life as a Santa Barbara kid. Where’d you go to school? Where’d you hang out? Where’d you get in trouble? I love, love, love, love Santa Barbara. I actually flew my wife in for our two-year wedding anniversary last July, and we spent it down on lower State Street in a hotel and watched the fireworks.
My family lived in Mission Canyon, and I went to Roosevelt Elementary, back before it was all nice, when it was still a bunch of portables. Then I went to La Colina Junior High. I rode my bike everywhere and skated a bunch. I’d get in trouble doing kickflips off the La Colina steps. That kind of stuff. Then I went to Santa Barbara High School. I was in the botany club and an emo band. I was suuuuper cool.
Oh yeah? Can’t say I pictured you as an emo kid who was into plants. What bands did you like? Oh man, I was all about Offspring, Blink-182, Pennywise, Bad Religion. We played a couple of venues out in Isla Vista when I was 15 years old, which I can’t believe my parents let me do. We played in the quad at Santa Barbara High School a few times too.
Talk to me about the responses to your book. It’s really raw, and I imagine pretty polarizing. So far, the response has been super positive. I really wrote it for the people who serve in the military and don’t necessarily have that kind of irreverent outlet to help them understand they can vent creatively. But I also did it for civilians, to give them a little insight of the severity of sending young men and women to war.
You’re always going to have haters and people who don’t understand what you’re trying to do or what your message is. I’ve been on the internet for seven years and have heard from plenty of people who disagree with me. It is what it is. All I can do is be a good dude and try to help fellow veterans by being honest.
You dedicated the book to your mom. Has she read it? Oh yeah, multiple times. She even read it with her book club.
Wait. What? Yeah, with all these sweet old ladies. I was terrified. I was like, “Mom, make sure they know I’m just a jokester.” But they loved it. They told her it was cool to hear where I came from and about the passion I have for my community.
Do you worry about offending your hometown, it being a liberal place and you having some outspokenly conservative views? Well, first, I’m not a political commentator. I don’t know politics well enough to speak to them. I wish more people felt that way.
But I am outspoken about my Second Amendment rights because I carried a gun professionally for 10 years, and I grew up shooting up in New Cuyama and Santa Ynez. I would get smacked up the head if I did anything unsafe with the firearm. I truly believe in the Second Amendment, and whether you’re left, middle, or right, you’re all about American preservation of life. We never want to see a tragedy happen.
There’s so much hate and divisiveness that’s used in politics these days. I’d rather make people laugh, and laughter’s unfailable in the sense that we can always find something funny together. But more to the point, I didn’t go fight a war for 10 years to come back and tell someone how to live their life. The unfortunate reality is sometimes with the content I put out, people think, “Hardcore Republican.” I’m like, “You don’t know me then.”
So how would you describe yourself? I’m an American. And what is an American? Someone who’s white. Someone who’s black. Latino. Man. Woman. Gay. Straight. Transgender. I served with all those people in the military. We all came together in a commonality of wanting freedom and a good quality of life. And to love each other. That’s it. Like, I can’t wait until Texas legalizes weed, because I want to hang out and smoke weed with my gay friends. Mark Twain said it best: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”
Do you think our government deserves our patriotism right now? How did you feel about the transgender military ban? Or how we treated the Kurds? I just don’t really talk about if I agree with what’s going on in the White House.
Fair enough. Then talk to me about your day-to-day right now. Well, I’m the executive vice president of Black Rifle Coffee Company, so I put probably 70 hours a week just into that. I want to say this, since I know Santa Barbara. People sometimes think, “These guys just want machine guns out on the streets.”
No, Black Rifle stands for the life-saving equipment that my partners and I carried for years. That’s what the company’s values are built of. We’re here to support our own, because we don’t think enough people look out for veterans. There’s still a war going on. We’re 18 years into this thing. It’s crazy.
How many employees do you have? Just shy of 200. We just built a huge roasting facility in Manchester, Tennessee. We do all in-house roasting, and we take the utmost care in the quality of our product. I laugh, because we’re basically a bunch of gun-toting hipsters. We’re down-to-earth dudes who go out to the range once in a while.
How’ve you adjusted to being a celebrity? That’s gotta be weird. Oh man, definitely. I didn’t set out to do this. Like you read in the book, I just started making stupid little videos to make my friends laugh. Then I blinked one morning and people in the military started recognizing me.
You seem to have avoided a lot of the challenges veterans face when they cycle back into society. I mean, yes and no. I had a really dark time getting out of the military, which I allude to in the book. But honestly, I’m a silver-lining kind of guy. I still have my own issues, like I have TBI [traumatic brain injury]. I forget things all the time. But I’m just thankful to be alive. We’re just normal people who went out and did extraordinary things in the name of our country, whether we believed in the war or not.
I don’t think we should have been in Iraq at the time. But we were like, “Okay, here we are. Let’s figure out how to keep ourselves alive.” It’s why I sit on the board of directors of the Boot Campaign. PTSD is used as a blanket statement, but these guys have memory issues, hearing loss, survivor’s guilt, mortal grief. We want to help them get to the root of the issue instead of just treating symptoms. We take them through brain scans, blood work, and figure out what the real problem is ― let’s treat that and get them back to living happy, healthy lives instead of sending them to the VA and filling them with opioids.
Any plans to visit Santa Barbara soon? What about an event at Chaucer’s? I’ll be in Los Angeles shooting a music video, and I might try to sneak up there. Shout out to Chicken Ranch, my favorite restaurant of all time in Santa Barbara. I used to eat there every single day in high school, if I could scrape the money together.
And Chaucer’s? Hell yeah. Frickin’ old school. I would love to do that.
Excerpts from Thank You For My Service
(Warning: Strong language ahead.)
On Early Training ―
Airborne School sounds cool, but really all you have to do to get through it is run five miles in less than forty minutes and then jump out of plane five times without breaking your legs or dying. The running part is pretty easy if you’re in decent shape. One time I broke a shoelace three miles into an afternoon run, and instead of stopping to re-rig the shoelace, I threw the boot into the woods like an idiot and Forrest Gumped it the last two miles, well within the allotted time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of having gone through Airborne, but for someone who has signed up to be a professional face shooter and had volunteered to run at bullets for $25,000 a year, the physical aspects of the school aren’t especially difficult.
Proving to yourself that you have the balls to jump out of a perfectly good airplane is where the real test in Airborne is, particularly once you realize that the whole jump procedure is “streamlined” for efficiency’s sake. You have to trust someone else to pack your chute, for example. And not just anyone ― someone who has also agreed to run at bullets for minimum. Then, unlike traditional skydiving, you don’t have full control over your risers (those sweet little toggles that control the steering of your parachute), which means they’re pretty much just fallers. This makes sense when you consider that, in a war zone, you’d like to land as soon as possible. But in training, during a “mass exit” at altitude, what ends up happening is that you play three-dimensional Frogger with twenty-five other jumpers.
One day the winds were gusting like Zeus farts and all I could do to get through being thrown uncontrollably through the air during my jump was to sing the chorus to “Dust in the Wind.” I truly felt in that moment that I had no control over my life or death. It was in the hands of ’70s supergroup Kansas … or possibly fate.
On the Thrill of War ―
As the deployment dragged on, we’d go out on an operation, get on target, and any bad guys who were still there would surrender immediately. The cadence of it all during this period of the fighting in Iraq became so reliable that, even if we were in a particularly concentrated area, we could blitz through multiple targets in one night ― sometimes up to a dozen. It was like an old-fashioned blitzkrieg, but with smaller units and bigger beards. My platoon was not unique in this regard ― it was happening to special operations units all over the country ― it just pissed me off maybe more than the others because I wanted to get in gunfights, not earn a merit badge in zip-tie knots.
Even though coalition forces were bagging some big players in the Global War on Terror at the same time, that offered me no solace, because my interests were not geopolitical. They were visceral. I wasn’t obsessed with winning; I was obsessed with the act of war. That’s what I was there for, and that’s what I wanted to be good at.
This wasn’t some kind of fucked-up bloodlust, but it was very primal. At its most basic, war is a mano a mano fight to the death in service of something bigger than yourself. General Douglas MacArthur called it “Duty, God, Country” in a speech to cadets at West Point near the start of the Vietnam War. Shakespeare called it a “band of brothers.” Whatever you want to call it, to fight in its defense is the ultimate test ― a test I was desperate for the opportunity to face and anxious to pass. As a nineteen-year-old kid, I wasn’t smart enough to understand why this drove me so hard, and to a degree I still don’t fully get it, but what I do know is that I was not alone. Humans and other mammals have engaged in some version of battle in defense of territory, family, the pack or the tribe, for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Today, “educated people” like to think we’ve evolved beyond this fundamental instinct, and they look down their noses at warfighters as primitive or regressive (whatever the fuck that means), but all you need to do is spend two minutes on Twitter to realize that this ancient animal impulse is alive and well.
Still there is a danger in giving yourself over too completely to the thrill of war, and I was very close to crossing that line before I’d even fired a fatal shot. The danger is not that you will lose yourself, though that is always possible, but that you will lose sight of the greater purpose of each mission. On this second trip there were times when I didn’t fully appreciate the danger of some of the situations that we were inserting ourselves into night after night, what with our crazy high operational tempo. I was never reckless, but there were times when I wasn’t necessarily seeing the full field, and when that happens, bad things can follow.
On Coming Home and Hating Los Angeles ―
The stereotype about L.A. people is that they’re all plastic, superficial phonies. Those people certainly exist in L.A., like they do in any big cosmopolitan city, but in my experience the young L.A. people I met out at restaurants and bars those first couple months were genuinely, authentically … awful. My buddies and I would go out every night, we’d end up in conversations with different groups of people, and then, when they found out I was a veteran who’d just returned from Iraq, it was T-Minus Cocktails before one of them found a way to insult me without even realizing it. This was right around the 2008 presidential election, too, when The Daily Show was at its most popular, so everyone was now a foreign policy expert.
“Uggh, George Bush, I swear to Gawwd.”
“Yeah but he’s not running ag ― ”
“This fucking oil war … it’s sooo gross.”
“Well, it’s a little more complic ― ”
“And Haliburton, right? Dick Cheney shot someone in the face!”
Then they’d all laugh at their funny joke and basically wait for me to explain myself. What I wanted to explain was how easy it would be to kill all of them before any of them could reach the front door. Instead I took the mature route and engaged with their ideas, to the extent they had any. I talked to them about my experience. I explained the military family I came from and described the brotherhood that made all the hard work and sacrifice worth it. I talked as little about politics or policy as I could because, really, what did I know? I was the sharp end of the spear, not the guy aiming it. Most people, to their credit, were receptive to what I had to say and appreciated my perspective, but because they were also just so fucking stupid, the way they expressed their appreciation was where the insults happend.
“That’s really interesting, I never thought of it like that. You know, when you first said you were in Iraq … you’re totally not as brainwashed as I thought you’d be.”
After enough trips around the carousel of ignorance, I decided to hop off and stay home more often. Jameson is cheaper when you buy it at Costco anyway, and playing video games is way more fun than listening to idiots, especially since you can turn off a video game whenever you want.
On Going Back and Being Rambo ―
The Rambo movies were my favorite growing up, even before I knew I wanted to join the military. Here was this guy, played by Sylvester Stallone, who was the ultimate badass. He never died. Hell, he never even got shot. But he lived with this constant mental anguish that forced him to keep going, to keep moving forward, because war was all he had left. It was Rambo versus the world. Kill or be killed. That was his mentality, and that’s what I loved about him. That’s what I wanted to be. By the middle of my fifth deployment, I felt closer to that feeling than I ever had before.
I never told anyone on my team about this, because honestly, it was super lame. Who says shit like that? The answer is no one, which is why I didn’t say it out loud, even as I was thinking it every second of every night we were out on a target. The more intense a situation got, the deeper I went into the weirder parts of my brain. I would literally think to myself on missions at night, “I am Rambo. Good luck trying to kill me, motherfucker, because I don’t give a fuck.”
Don’t misunderstand: I wasn’t suicidal. Thinking you’re going to die and wanting to die are totally different things. I didn’t have a death wish. It’s just that, in my experience, the more you deploy and face the dark realities that exist in life, the more comfortable you become with the idea of death. Sometimes you don’t really care if it’s you or the people you are hunting who died, just as long as it isn’t the people you are leading. It’s hard to explain to people who have never served in this capacity.
On Admitting an Addiction ―
I realized that the war we were sent to fight on behalf of America was not the only war we were fighting. Far from it. As veterans, we also fought millions of horrible individual wars within ourselves. My inner war was not with PTSD or survivor’s guilt or regret or some weird kind of FOMO (fear of missing out). My war was with war. I was fighting an addiction to war.
War was my heroin and got me high unlike anything I had ever experienced. My needle was a gun, and I was shooting into the first vein I could find. What made those two years after leaving the Rangers so difficult for me was that I had quit war cold turkey and I was suffering from withdrawal.
At the time, I called it needing a purpose, which was half-true. What I really needed was a fix.
Thankfully, I had enough of my wits about me at the time to recognize that I could not go back all the way. I could not commit 100 percent to chasing that dragon. It would drive me insane, and then it would kill me. So instead I became a contractor, which functioned more or less like my methadone. I got 80 percent of the high ― enough to take the edge off ― with enough mental clarity that my brain could recognize real opportunity and genuine purpose when it placed itself in front of me.
On Mat’s Next Mission ―
I will be the first to admit that for most of my adult life, if it didn’t involve weapons, war, or women, I had no fucking clue what I was doing. I was just faking it until, fingers crossed, I was making it. I was throwing shit at the wall and hoping something would stick. Now that these videos are sticking, I started to think a little bit bigger about what they might be able to accomplish.
[My business partner] Jarred and I had already started to come up with all sorts of grand plans for the YouTube Channel and the Facebook page, but it was about more than that. It was about building a platform to convey a larger message. The one thing I kept coming back to ― and issue that had become really frustrating to me ― was the way people in our society talk about veterans. All you ever heard about in the news or on TV shows were things like the destructiveness of PTSD or the crippling nature of survivor’s guilt.
And while some veterans do suffer from those issues, if Law & Order did an episode where a soldier killed someone, it was never because he was an evil prick who happened to be in the military (the Marines, obviously), it was because he’d done a tour in Iraq and he saw his best friend die in an IED attack and it broke his brain and then he came home and everything was different and he couldn’t sleep and it made it hard for him to hold down a job and then he got evicted from his apartment and then his girlfriend fucked his best friend and took his dog. Blah blah blah blah blah. Every veteran story was just this endless parade of horribles.
What they failed to show, time and again, was my experience, which was the same as the experience of the hundreds of veterans I’ve known and served with who loved their time in the military and to this day view it as one of the most important, meaningful, enjoyable periods of their lives. No matter where you looked, there was no appetite for our stories anywhere. It felt like the forces that controlled the culture, that attempt to shape how we reckon with war and the warriors who fight it, had not built enough tolerance into the system, or put enough slack in the line, to accommodate the powerful notion that there are men and women out there who put their lives at risk to fight for others, to fight for an ideal, not because they had to, but because they wanted to, they needed to. These were the forces that convinced civilians to thank us for our service on airport concourses all across America, in solemn, guilt-riddled tones, like we must have been compelled, reluctantly, to sacrifice our freedom, when in fact we had proactively exercised it to enlist and do something we loved.
As I continued to make videos, my goal was to speak to people like me. People who appreciated gratitude but had no use for pity; who did not need thanks for their service because they were more thankful for it than anyone could imagine. They were grateful for the chance to serve. I wanted to reflect their reality back to them so they would know that they weren’t crazy for not being crazy. I also wanted any veterans and current active military who might be struggling to know that it was okay to laugh in the face of the horrors of war, that they could be proud and what they’d accomplished, and that there was at least one place online where no one would judge them either way. I wanted the world to know that veterans like me, who loved man shit like beards and whiskey and guns and hot chicks in American flag bikinis, weren’t ticking time bombs waiting to explode. We were normal people who just so happened to have gone through some extraordinary experiences and come out the other side proud of our accomplishments, grateful for our brothers and sisters, and ready to apply all that experience to the next chapter of our lives in the civilian world … and thrive.