Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. John Mateczun was in the Pentagon when it was attacked by terrorists who flew a jetliner into the building on Sept. 11, 2001.
A medical doctor specializing in psychiatry, Mateczun immediately began attending to the wounded.
“We didn’t know if he was dead or alive and it wasn’t until a few hours after the plane had crashed that he finally was able to get in touch with the family to let us know he was still alive,” said his son, Adam Mateczun.
It was that event that led Adam to join the Marine Corps. His father remained in the military until 2012, serving in a number of capacities.
John Mateczun died peacefully at his Maryland home on Nov. 7. He was 76.
Although he had not lived in Albuquerque since graduating medical school in 1978, Mateczun returned regularly to visit his mother and other relatives and friends, and to soak up the New Mexico desert landscapes and colors that he loved so much, said his daughter, Laura Mateczun.
Growing up in Albuquerque, he attended Rio Grande High School, where he played varsity basketball, football and ran track, then went to the University of New Mexico and later the UNM School of Medicine. In 2015, Mateczun received the dual honors of being named distinguished UNM undergraduate alumnus and distinguished graduate of the UNM School of Medicine.
As a youth, Mateczun and his older brother, Dr. Alfred Mateczun Jr., were members of 4-H, raising animals, keeping bees and conducting scientific experiments with genetically modified corn on the family’s fertile South Valley property, said his daughter. Those experiments led to five first-place ribbons at State Fairs for New Mexico’s best blue corn, and her father’s lifelong love of Hatch green chile, posole and enchiladas, she said.
Laura Mateczun remembered her father as a loving and compassionate family man who carefully considered others’ opinions before offering his own. He was also athletic and continued to play golf and basketball long after he retired.
“He was soft spoken, but spoke powerfully when he chose to,” she said. “He never raised his voice and was a proud man, but humble throughout.” And, he possessed a dry wit, “but you had to be paying attention to catch that he was joking.”
Mateczun came from a military family. His father, Alfred Sr., served in the U.S. Navy as a Seabee during World War II. John and his brother, Alfred Jr., attended the Air Force Academy. John, however, didn’t like the engineering-centric curriculum. He left and in 1966 enlisted in the U.S. Army. Both brothers were deployed to Vietnam in 1967.
During his second combat tour in Vietnam in 1969-70, John Mateczun became an explosive ordnance disposal specialist. He was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in combat – the first of many awards bestowed during his career.
After being honorably discharged in 1970, Mateczun attended the UNM School of Medicine, graduating in the same class as his brother, Alfred. Both were subsequently commissioned in the U.S. Navy and completed residencies at the Naval Regional Medical Center Oakland, California. During his residency, John Mateczun also received a Master of Public Health degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982.
While stationed at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, as the head of consultation-liaison psychiatry and director of interns, Mateczun met his future wife, Elizabeth Holmes, who was the head of the HIV/AIDS mental health program. They were married for 34 years.
Holmes, a clinical psychologist, said her husband’s nature as thoughtful, reflective and aware of his own mortality was partly a result of his time in Vietnam. “After taking apart bombs, he really felt like risk-taking was something he was familiar with, but paying attention to his own intuition was most important.”
Over the following years, Mateczun was regularly promoted and served in a host of high-level positions, including chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia; chief of staff, TRICARE health program, Walter Reed Army Medical Center; joint staff surgeon, Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Pentagon; commander of Joint Task Force National Capital Region Medical; and deputy surgeon general of the U.S. Navy.
At some point, the Department of Defense told Mateczun that “in order to get promoted, he’d have to take a certain forensic course,” which was offered at Georgetown University Law Center, said Adam Mateczun. Upon contacting the university, his father learned that “to take the course he’d have to sign up for the entire program.”
So he did. “He would work all day, come home and take care of family business and then burn the midnight oil reading case studies,” Adam Mateczun said. “He knocked out an entire degree by studying at night,” and in 1988, at the age of 42, John Mateczun added Juris Doctor to his growing list of credentials.
In addition to his wife, son, daughter, and older brother, Mateczun is survived by two grandchildren, and a number of nephews, nieces and cousins.
Burial with full military honors will take place at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.
Memorial gifts in memory of John Mateczun can be made to the Mateczun Endowed Scholarship for Veterans at the University of New Mexico.