Cal State LA graduate hopes to make life better for fellow military veterans
A social work major, he plans to pursue a master’s degree.
By Kaitlin Ragland | Cal State LA News Service
Matthew Keels is using his passion for social work to change the perception of military veterans and connect them to the services they need.
In his two years on campus, the U.S. Army veteran has already drawn new attention to issues faced by fellow veterans at Cal State LA. As a leader of campus veterans’ groups and student organizations, Keels has focused on strengthening support that promotes success and making services easier to access.
“I want to help veterans, and ever since I’ve been at Cal State LA, I’ve been doing that, which is amazing,” he says.
Keels, 27, graduated on May 23 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work from the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work and continue to expand his advocacy and service to veterans.
Keels has represented the veteran population on campus, as both the former veterans affairs representative for Associated Students, Inc., and as the current president of the Cal State LA chapter of SALUTE, the national honor society that recognizes academic excellence among military veterans.
Across campus, there are currently 587 military-connected students, which includes veterans, active duty, National Guard, reserve members, and their spouses, children and grandchildren. Keels was selected for the position of ASI veterans affairs representative, now known as the military-connected students representative, by the ASI Board of Directors. “I’m really proud of that,” he says.
Keels also previously served as ASI’s vice president for administration and as an officer for the School of Social Work’s Lobby Days Caucus. In that role, Keels pushed for policy change at the State Capitol in Sacramento, lobbying for SB 10, which eliminated the cash bail system for defendants awaiting trial. The bill was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in August 2018.
As the veterans affairs representative for ASI, Keels created a 100-question survey to find out how the military-related students on campus felt about services available to them through the university, and how those services could be expanded or improved. The survey was the first of its kind, and established a precedent that Keels hopes other representatives will follow.
He balanced all of these tasks while maintaining a 3.7 GPA and helping raise his two children, Maribel, 9, and Matthew Jr., 4, with his ex-wife.
Keels was only 17 when Maribel was born. He decided to enlist in the Army to become better equipped for the responsibilities of parenthood. As a service member, he was able to financially provide for his family. But that came at the cost of spending long periods away from home.
“I was gone all the time,” Keels recalls. “If I wasn’t deployed, I was training. I think I only saw my daughter about half of that time in those five years.”
Being apart from his family took a toll on his mental health.
Keels remembers feeling so desperate for help when he was stationed in Colorado that he called a local hospital one morning at 6 a.m. and said he didn’t feel like living anymore. They told him the hospital didn’t have any staff that could help him at that moment and suggested he call back at 10 a.m.
He was astounded that he’d been so easily dismissed at such a critical moment.
A few months later, when a close friend who’d served with him in the Army took his own life, Keels flashed back to that dispiriting morning.
“I remembered what happened with me, and I wondered if the same thing happened to him,” Keels says. “I felt kind of responsible for that in a way. He was my friend, and I didn’t check up on him to make sure that he was OK.”
Keels made a commitment then to learn as much as he could about mental health issues among veterans and what resources might help.
He remembered the suicide-awareness trainings that service members were required to attend, and he looked at the staggering number of military-related suicides. Veterans die by suicide at more than 1.5 times the rate of non-veterans, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“If we’re going through these trainings and people are still committing suicide, then there’s something wrong,” Keels says.
There was a disconnect in the system, and Keels has made it his goal to analyze and combat it.
When he left the service in 2015, he decided to pursue a degree in social work and become a force for change, so troubled veterans don’t have to suffer silently.
“I want to be able to potentially help someone in that situation,” Keels says, “because I saw that there was no help for me.”