by Lindsay Perna
WASHINGTON–His briefcase stacked with mission statements and budget proposals, Matthew Cary looks like most of the other lobbyists who labor in the power corridors of Washington. He even dresses like most of them, except for his red, white and blue patriotically colored pin, inscribed “Leave No Veteran Behind.”
Matt Cary is a volunteer lobbyist for and president of Veterans and Military Families for Progress, a non-profit organization whose announced goal is to ensure the rights and needs of veterans, active-duty service members and their families.
The Elmira native is driven by the vivid memories he brought back with him from Vietnam. Fifty hours a week, the 61-year-old can hardly breathe,” he said, as he hustles between numerous negotiations with Senate and House members in their offices and committee meetings.
When he is not working at his consulting firm, Cary & Associates, he begs for health care, employment aid and assistance to homeless veterans.
Veterans and Military Families for Progress was formed in 2005 at a meeting of veterans and military family members from across the country. According to the organization’s Web site, the intention, is to address “veterans coming home” issues.
Or, as Cary put it in an interview, it was an “opportunity to get veterans out of the closet.”
Cary’s work with the veterans organization, however, did not ignite his career. His war-ridden past did.
Cary was born in Waverly into the Commerford Theater business. His father owned the second-largest independent movie theater business in the country, with 180 cinemas stretching from Waverly, Binghamton and Elmira to Scranton, Pa.
Cary’s father would commission his three sons to produce variety shows in their back yard. His first job, when he was 6 years old, was behind the scenes, dealing with patrons at the make-shift family event. While his two older brothers would headline the shows in hula skirts for their rendition of “South Pacific,” Cary would dole out tickets, candy and popcorn to neighborhood kids.
“That was kind of a disaster,” he recalled with a grin as he sat at the bar in the Democratic National Committee building.
“Matt was naturally outgoing, very much of an extrovert,” said Brian Donnell, Cary’s childhood friend since 1958. O’Donnell met Cary at St. Patrick’s Grammar School in Elmira. He’s seen Cary through trombone and trumpet lessons and played baseball with him at Notre Dame High School.
“In life, you maybe have hundreds of acquaintances and handfuls of good friends–Matt qualifies as a good friend,” the Watkins Glen resident said.
Cary’s baseball pitching skills carried over to his active-duty days in Vietnam. He received a medal for his skill in throwing hand grenades, Cary said.
“A lot of that had to do with baseball,” he said. “I was throwing a grenade and it was landing where it should.”
On graduation from St. Bonaventure University, Cary, then 22, was drafted and put himself on the reserve list.
“I said, ‘Well, my fate is doomed–my two brothers are already in the Air Force,’” he recalled, saying that he later requested an assignment instead of waiting out his reserve status. He reached the rank of corporal by the time he returned from eight months of active duty in 1969.
Bill Dooling, who has known Cary for six years while working as vice president of Veterans and Military Families for Progress, said Cary came back from Vietnam with a sense of obligation.
“I wouldn’t say he was traumatized, I would say he is impassioned,” said Dooling, who is also a Vietnam veteran.
Cary moved to Washington immediately after his return and circulated his resume through the New York congressional delegation. “I knocked on all the doors,” he said. He finally landed a job as legislative director for then-Rep. James Hastings (R-N.Y.) of his home district.
“I was part of all of it, and that was exciting,” he said.
Though he unsuccessfully made a stab at running for the same congressional seat years later, Cary eventually shifted to legislative lobbying. Building on his three years at the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, Cary advised on legislation as a Washington representative for six cities, including Buffalo, N.Y., and Bayamon, Puerto Rico. In 1986, he started a consulting firm, Cary & Associates.
Even with his busy schedule, Cary finds time to play in a senior baseball league, traveling all over the country in tournaments. He also chairs the board of dcbaseball.org, a non-profit whose mission is to encourage young people’s participation in the sport.
“He mixes both his political interests and his personal interests quite a bit,” said Robert Doyle, who has known Cary since 1976, when they met in a government-sponsored baseball game. “We’re both of the same political stripe–Democrat.”
“He’s a big organizer–whether it comes to work or social events,” said Philip Amoruso, a fellow Army reservist who has known Cary since they met 40 years ago at their reserve unit in suburban Maryland.
When Dana Serafin met Cary at the bar of the Mayflower Hotel in 1996, she thought he was a “really fun, interesting guy–pretty cute, too.”
Cary proved his “impeccable character and commitment,” when her father died just before they married in 1997, she said.
“If somebody needs help, he will help them out,” the 51-year-old said of her husband.
Now, Cary is looking to recruit philanthropists, members of the corporate world and the entertainment community for the Veterans and Military Families for Progress.
But his next “big battle to fight,” he said, is at a District of Columbia City Council hearing on April 24 to consider moving the city’s veterans affairs unit from the mayor’s office to another city agency.
“We figure it will get lost in the shuffle over there,” Cary said, and he warned that the move would strip the VA office of its ability to seek federal money.
“If we can bring everyone together as one family, we can fix these problems,” he said before heading off for another day on the Hill.