The tragic downward spiral of a special operations pilot

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On Nov. 25, 2021, Air Force special operations pilot Capt. Matt Jacobs and his wife Stephanie engaged in an intense argument at their home in Florida. 

Like many married couples, they argued about “issues they have had in the past,” according to a police report about the incident. After the disagreement escalated, he grabbed a rope from Stephanie’s medical bag, and “stated he was done” as he walked out. Before Stephanie could stop him, Matt pulled out of their driveway in his Toyota Prius. It wasn’t the first time he’d abruptly left home after getting into an argument, but this time was different. 

Stephanie called the police. 

“I viewed [his] movement history off her phone, I witnessed what appeared to be [Matt] going to a liquor store, the Navarre beach fishing pier, and other locations heading west on Highway 98,” the responding officer wrote in the police report. The officer sent out a BOLO, alerting officers in the area to be on the lookout for Matt’s vehicle, “for a welfare check.” 

Other officers checked locations near where they’d seen Matt show up on Stephanie’s phone’s GPS tracking. The search came up empty. The officer eventually made contact again with Stephanie, who told them that Matt “sent out a mass amount of texts to individuals saying he was sorry,” according to the report. She gave the officer his phone number and carrier, and after several more attempts, the officers found him.

An employee at a local hospital told one officer they found him outside the facility in his car, “heavily intoxicated with a noose tied around his neck,” though the noose wasn’t tied to anything. A doctor admitted him to the hospital under the Baker Act, which provides “emergency mental health services and temporary detention” for someone who is “unable to determine their needs,” according to University of Florida Health.

Matt is just one of the many active duty service members who suffer from mental health issues, make threats of suicide, and even engage in domestic violence. It wasn’t the first time Matt had been admitted to a hospital under the Baker Act. And it was far from the last of the couple’s problems. He was in a downward spiral, and to this day, questions remain. What could have been done to help him — and his family?

Matt is a pilot assigned to the 1st Special Operations Air Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, according to his command’s public affairs office. He is currently facing at least one charge in civilian court for allegedly violating a protective order his wife filed against him. The order resulted from an alleged domestic violence incident in July 2022, for which Matt was arrested but the charges ultimately dropped, which followed several other instances of documented misconduct over the years which he admitted to in January. 

But it also follows significant mental health diagnoses, of which it’s unclear what the Air Force has done to help address or treat over the years. 

The reporting in this story is based on public court records, official military documents, hospital records, and interviews. Task & Purpose is using pseudonyms to refer to Matt and Stephanie to protect private health information and Stephanie’s privacy as an alleged victim of domestic violence. Matt did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and his civilian attorney declined to comment. The Air Force has declined to comment on the specifics of this case, providing only general information about mental health support available to airmen and a rebuke of domestic violence in the ranks.

A spokesman for Matt’s command said they are waiting for the civilian court process to finish before they decide to take any action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But Stephanie claimed his chain of command repeatedly failed to intervene and get him help and has not sufficiently supported her after various incidents between them.

She recalled one moment in 2022 when she was working with Matt’s care coordinator after his arrest this July. They were meeting so Stephanie could pass over some of Matt’s belongings as he was moving into a new home. 

“She looks at me, and she’s like, ‘Are you trying to destroy him?’” Stephanie recalled. “Like, I’m sorry? He put his hands on me. After months and months and months of stuff, and she asks if I am trying to destroy him? No, I’ve been begging you guys to get him help.” 

The tragic downward spiral of a special operations pilot
A U.S. Air Force 16th Special Operations Squadron AC-130J Ghostrider arrives at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, April 18, 2022. (Airman 1st Class Cassidy Thomas/U.S. Air Force)

Aside from concerns over his mental health, Matt has admitted to multiple instances of misconduct, including fraternization and affairs with at least one enlisted service member and abusing drugs on deployment. He also received non-judicial punishment in 2020 after going absent without leave (AWOL) and breaking the Air Force’s restriction of movement order during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a base newsletter, Matt received non-judicial punishment; the same newsletter said an enlisted service member who also broke the restriction of movement order was suspended and knocked down a rank. 

In an email on Nov. 4, 2020, Matt sent the newsletter to Stephanie: “Look,” he said, “I made the ‘news.’” 

The official documents obtained by Task & Purpose paint a full picture of an officer’s career littered with slip-ups and more serious instances of misconduct, along with clear mental health concerns that appear to have been overlooked or insufficiently addressed by unit leaders. It’s unclear how much the Air Force was aware of until he laid his career bare in an official statement to the Air Force in January 2022.

Much of the misconduct appeared to happen while he was assigned to the 16th Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, from 2016 to 2021. Capt. Amy Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the base, told Task & Purpose she was unable to say what his leaders at the time were aware of, adding that the 27th Special Operations Wing “is committed to ensuring that its Airmen have access to mental health care and support” and that “any reported incidents of misconduct are thoroughly investigated.” Matt’s former squadron commander at Cannon AFB, Lt. Col. Michael Murphy, declined to comment, referring Task & Purpose back to the Air Force’s response and adding that there are “always three sides to every story.”

Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor for the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, told Task & Purpose that looking at all of the incidents together, it doesn’t make sense that Matt is still on active duty. Even if the Air Force intended to help him with continued care, Christensen said, it’s possible to receive that out of uniform instead of staying on the Air Force’s payroll. 

Matt is a trained AC-130 pilot who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2011. At the time of a mental health evaluation report in April 2022, he was working as a senior duty officer for the 1st Special Operations Air Squadron; the report said Matt was pending “separation per command,” and had come in for an evaluation of his own accord, wanting to “know what is wrong with me.”

But according to other official documents, Matt’s mental health struggles began long before then.

In an official statement on Jan. 10, Matt said he’d been on a “downward spiral for quite some time” since he deployed in 2014. He admitted to “destructive” and “illegal behaviors,” including “excessively” using alcohol to cope and abusing “prescription Ambien both home-station and deployed.” He wrote that he engaged in “multiple affairs … including an affair with an enlisted member in 2017-2018.”

And according to official records viewed by Task & Purpose, Matt was hospitalized twice for suicidal ideations in 2021. He was discharged from the last visit in January 2022 with diagnoses of alcohol use disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder with primarily narcissistic traits, partner relational issues, and a “recurrent, severe” major depressive disorder.

It’s unclear how much Matt’s commanders were aware of, though Brandi Hoff, an Air Force veteran and the former director of the True North program at Minot Air Force Base, told Task & Purpose that when it comes to pilots, commanders are often willing to overlook a lot to keep them operational. 

In January 2019, for example, official records say Matt was diagnosed with PTSD and following treatment was “successfully terminated from mental health treatment” that May. He was found ready to deploy in January 2020, the record says, and “deemed WWQ [world-wide qualified] and cleared for deployment from a mental health perspective.”

With PTSD alone, Hoff said airmen can be deemed deployable “if you’ve acquired the coping skills.” But she also raised questions over how legitimate that was, given the other mental health issues he was later diagnosed with.

“I would question when they returned him back with no clinical signs — did he actually not have clinical signs? Or did they overlook it, or dismiss it, because they had to get him back?” Hoff asked. “They have a lot of commander pressure, too. And the commander from his unit will pressure the commander from the med group … A lot of times, the enlisted airmen especially will just get written off, just recommended he be discharged or separated or whatever, where a high-value asset like a pilot, they don’t want that to happen to.” 

The tragic downward spiral of a special operations pilot
An Aircrew from the 16th Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., lands an AC-130W Stinger II to participate in Emerald Warrior/Trident at the Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., January 15, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Erin Piazza/U.S. Air Force)

A hospital record from December 2021, which documents Matt’s conversation with a psychiatrist during his in-patient stay, offers more insight. According to the document, Matt told his doctor that while he was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base, before his assignment at Hurlburt Field, the Air Force “went after my pilot’s license.” When asked about Matt’s comments, Rasmussen, the Cannon Air Force Base spokeswoman, told Task & Purpose only that the Air Force “does not have a pilot’s license that is achieved like a typical civilian process. In order to fly for the military, you have to maintain qualifications in both physical and mental fitness.”

According to the report, Matt said “when he got transferred to Hurlburt Air Force Base, that his pilot license was reinstated.”

In retrospect, it seems Matt’s PTSD in 2019 was just the first in what would be a series of increasingly severe concerns. 

In August of 2021, Matt was admitted to a hospital under the Baker Act. Before his admission, Stephanie said Matt threatened to shoot her and himself with her firearm, though Matt has said he only threatened to kill himself in the incident. 

In his written statement in January 2022, Matt said the incident stemmed from an argument they had over “porn I had watched on a public website.” The argument “escalated to the point where I wanted to take my own life,” he wrote. After she called the police, Matt said he cleared the firearm and handed the gun to her. He ultimately was not charged in the incident and was discharged from the hospital six days later. In his statement, he said he spent two months in an intensive outpatient program. 

Stephanie said she recently learned Matt told his chain of command about the incident, and they “just basically sat him down and said don’t do that again.” 

However, weeks later, he was admitted under the Baker Act again. A police report from the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office says that on Nov. 25, an officer responded to a call from Stephanie, who said she and Matt had an argument which resulted in him “grabbing a rope from her medical bag” and leaving the residence in his car. The report goes on to say that Stephanie informed the officers that Matt had sent a “mass amount of texts to individuals saying he was sorry,” and that by logging into his email account, Stephanie saw that he’d recently put in a “Google search of how to tie a noose.” 

The sheriff’s office was contacted by people who said they were alarmed by the texts they received from Matt, which led officers to provide Matt’s phone carrier and phone number to dispatch.

Officers searched several places for Matt based on his cell phone location. They ultimately found his empty vehicle parked outside Ascension Sacred Heart, a hospital in Pensacola. An employee notified the responding officer that they’d “found [Matt] in his vehicle heavily intoxicated with a noose tied around his neck, however not tied off to anything,” according to the police report. 

Both of those incidents were mentioned in Matt’s January 2022 statement. It’s unclear what action, if any, the Air Force took with the sworn statement; in response to a detailed list of questions from Task & Purpose, Matt’s command’s public affairs office said they could not comment on specifics due to “the ongoing investigation,” but added that their service members “​​have access to several wellness resources geared toward this type of scenario.”

Nevertheless, the situation continued to escalate. In February 2022, Matt crashed his car into a pole at high speed, resulting in a traumatic brain injury, bleeding in his brain, and “traumatic contusions” on the frontal lobe of his brain. 

Stephanie said she “fully” holds his chain of command responsible for what has happened to her husband, who she is now separated from. 

“They could have prevented this very easily,” she said. “They could have gotten him real help.” 

Hoff agreed that leadership “should have helped him sooner.”

“You have to be accountable for your actions, commanders included,” she said. “More could be done in every aspect of it. The member has to be responsible for their negative behaviors, however, commanders have an obligation to engage when they see an issue. There’s a lot of blame to share here.” 

It’s unclear what exactly commanders are required to do in the case regarding his misconduct, given that Matt has not yet been convicted of a crime in civilian court. Air Force regulations say service members are subject to discharge if they are found guilty in a civilian court of something that would result in a punitive discharge under the UCMJ, or when a civilian sentencing includes confinement of six months or more. 

But the regulations also provide some level of commander discretion. A discharge should be initiated “if the specific circumstances of the offense warrant separation,” the regulations say.

Additionally, the military and Air Force specifically have clear guidance about what to do if they have concerns about a service member’s mental health. Department of Defense Instruction 6490.04 says a commissioned officer senior to the officer in question can make a command-directed referral for a mental health evaluation. A command-directed evaluation (CDE) for mental health care is meant to be used when a commander believes a service member is at risk of hurting themselves or others, or when a commander believes the service member could be “suffering from a severe mental disorder.” The CDE “has the same status as any other military order,” the regulation says.

But if a commander doesn’t believe their concerns rise to the level of a CDE they can “make informal, non-mandatory recommendations.”

“Commanders or supervisors may request a CDE for a variety of concerns including fitness for duty, occupational requirements, safety concerns, or significant changes in performance or behavioral changes that may be attributable to possible mental status changes,” the Air Force regulation says.

It’s unclear if any such evaluation was ever ordered or suggested by Matt’s chain of command, though his 2022 mental health evaluation acknowledges he “presented to the mental health clinic” in September 2020 after he received “administrative paperwork” regarding the time he was AWOL. 

What is clear, however, is that the problems continued after his car accident earlier in 2022.

Months after the accident, Matt was arrested on charges of domestic violence following an argument he and Stephanie allegedly got into that turned physical. According to police records from the July 15 incident, Stephanie told the responding officer that the two were fighting over a laptop when he pushed her down, sat on top of her, and “grabbed her left bicep area and began to utilize his thumb to apply pressure” to her arm. The responding officer said they observed bruising and “redness” on the arm she said he grabbed in their written report after the incident. 

That domestic violence charge was ultimately dropped; court records say the “witnesses’ statements and testimonies are not consistent.” The same reasoning was used for dropping two other charges of violating the no-contact order with Stephanie, according to police reports. Police reports document allegations that he followed her on social media, sent her Google calendar invites, and called her from inside jail after another arrest.

According to Christensen, seeing domestic violence-related charges get dropped is not particularly surprising. 

“You have to be realistic, and understand that just because the charges are dropped doesn’t mean this isn’t a serious situation,” Christensen said. He later added that, generally, there is “a lot of smoke” that gets ignored before domestic incidents escalate — and by then, it could be too late.

“You may not have enough to say for sure that domestic violence has occurred,” he said. “But you have enough to be concerned and to be intervening … If you’re demanding to be in charge of these things like command does, then you have to be a big boy and understand these things happen and not just blow it off.”

Throughout everything, Stephanie said she felt hurt again and again because of her husband’s actions and the loss of their relationship. But she also said one of the biggest frustrations has been a lack of support from Matt’s command. After his July 2022 arrest, she said she had to fight to get Matt to fulfill his financial obligations. 

Asked about the support provided to Stephanie, 2nd Lt. Trego said dependents “are offered confidential resources in times of need. At this time, we are not aware of which, if any, resources she utilized.” 

The tragic downward spiral of a special operations pilot
An aircrew from the 16th Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., lands an AC-130W Stinger II to participate in Emerald Warrior/Trident at the Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., January 15, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Erin Piazza/U.S. Air Force)

While Trego said it is the command’s understanding that “local law enforcement has dropped all charges against [Capt. Jacobs],” public records show at least one charge from September 2022 is still open. 

According to public records, police were called on Sept. 22 after Stephanie reported Matt had violated the order. The officer who arrived at her home wrote in the report that Stephanie was “fearful and sometimes crying” as she told him that the day before, she “saw a balloon tied to her fence” outside of her home. Her father retrieved the balloon, along with a card that was addressed to him, gift certificates to the flower shop that delivered the package, chocolates, and a happy birthday card. 

Nothing in the delivery was addressed to Stephanie, the report said, but she insisted that it was sent to her by Matt. Stephanie said when she called the flower shop to ask who sent the delivery, the manager “was initially hesitant” because the sender had asked to remain anonymous. But, the report says, the manager eventually said Matt had placed the delivery. 

The officer wrote in their report that they saw in the “special delivery instructions” section of the order a note that said, “Please hide billing information from the recipient at all times. Would like them to receive the gift and never know where it came from.” 

“This statement confirms [Stephanie’s] statement that [Matt] was trying to hide the fact that he sent these items to her which shows he willfully violated the (DVI),” the report says, adding that Stephanie was experiencing “noticeable emotional stress” from the incident.

It adds that the Sept. 22 incident, combined with the previous reports of violations of the protective order, showed Matt “is willfully, and maliciously violating the (DVI), and he is harassing [Stephanie] and engaged in a course of conduct directed at her, causing her substantial emotional distress and serving no legitimate purpose.” 

The Air Force and military as a whole have been messaging more and more over the last several years that mental health is important, and service members should seek help if they need it. At the beginning of 2022, for example, Gen. Mike Minihan, the head of Air Mobility Command, shared a photo of his calendar online showing a scheduled mental health appointment. “Warrior heart,” he said. “No stigma.”

But as one might expect, it’s not quite that easy for airmen on the ground. As one active duty Air Force JAG wrote for Task & Purpose, “there are multiple disincentives and penalties written into Air Force policies that — whether intended or not — make life difficult for Airmen who seek mental health treatment.”

It may be difficult to pinpoint where the failure stems from in Matt’s case, but experts say his experience is indicative of a much larger problem within both the military and society in how mental health is handled. Neither the military nor civilian society has adequate systems in place to truly help people, said Dr. Craig Bryan, professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State University. And when it comes to pilots, both inside and outside of the military, he said, the problems can get even worse. 

“Related to pilots, the DoD has policies in place that, in essence, have negative career impacts for somebody like this. So if they go forward to seek out help, they risk being taken off of flight status,” Bryan said. 

He and Hoff both said that’s particularly troublesome for the Air Force, which is already experiencing a pilot shortage

The tragic downward spiral of a special operations pilot
U.S. Air Force aircrew members assigned to the 16th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron perform pre-flight checks onboard an AC-130W Stinger II before a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Southwest Asia, July 23, 2018. (Staff Sgt. Keith James/U.S. Air Force)

“This becomes another part of the challenge of catching things early because the individual, the service member, is motivated to conceal, to hide, to minimize a lot of these challenges and struggles,” he said. “And so things tend to build and get worse over time until they become very, very severe. And then it’s sort of like at this point, you have this really complicated situation where we then, in retrospect, look back and say, ‘Well, could we have done something earlier?’” 

When it comes down to it, Bryan said it has become increasingly clear that the processes and policies the Pentagon operates off of now “don’t work very well anymore.” 

“We keep holding on to this organizational structure and mindset that is less and less sort of adapted to the needs of the modern-day service member in society … We probably need to change the system itself, as opposed to just saying more people need to go to the doctor,” he said. “No, we need to create an institution, an organization, where people feel like they matter, that they’re taken care of. And that people have their back.”

Note: Certain dates in this report were updated to clarify that an event occurred in 2022, rather than “this year.”

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