My Great New Life: Air Force veteran protects people in high places

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(Photo: Jon R. Anderson/Staff)

(Photo: Jon R. Anderson/Military Times

Jon Anderson, Military Times

When Matt Paulk was a kid growing up in rural Georgia, you could usually find him dangling from somewhere high above the ground. Whether it was the rope-lashed tree fort he and his friends built or climbing to the tippy top of the 50-foot pecan trees, he loved getting up into the high places.

That’s not to say he didn’t have a healthy fear of heights. But even at a young age, he just loved to face down those fears, even while climbing ever higher.

“When you climb to the top of a tree like that, it’s no longer a big trunk up at the top. It’s just a small branch. And it’s swaying in the breeze. I would climb up to those points and reach a place of terror, just clamped on, white knuckled.”

The trick, he says, was embracing the fear in order to overcome it.

In the years since, you could say Paulk has made a career of facing down fears. A few, in fact.

“The Northwest just sort of charmed me,” he says. “Just up the road, you can go snowboarding pretty much any time of the year. If you want to hike the Olympic Mountain Range, that’s an hour away. If you want to go surfing, cool, that’s not far, either.”

After six years in uniform, Paulk decided it was time to face some new challenges. The transition, however, was harder than he expected.

“There’s all this structure in the military — there’s a certain rhythm to it that makes sense. And then, all of a sudden, in one day, it’s gone. And then you’re like, ‘Now what?’ That ‘now what?’ question was pretty tough for me to answer coming out. There were definitely some really dark days then.”

Mostly, he says, he struggled with a lack of direction. He worked as a bartender to pay the bills, but he didn’t find it particularly satisfying.

He credits a close-knit group of friends “who believed in me and stuck by me and wanted me to be happy” with helping him get through what he calls his “long downswing.”

The upswing came about two years ago as Paulk decided it was time to find a more meaningful job. A company called Gravitec was quick to catch his eye.

 Gravitec, he soon learned, provides training, engineering, equipment and testing with the singular, if lofty, focus of protecting those who work in high places. Whether that’s up on a 20-foot roof, climbing inside a 200-foot wind turbine, or tethered to the swaying tip of a 2,000-foot communication tower.

With both his on-duty military and off-duty mountaineering experience, he was a perfect fit for the training instructor position Gravitec was looking to fill.

Two years later, he says the company has been a perfect fit for him as well.

After an intensive training pipeline, he soon was training a range of pupils from cell phone tower and wind turbine workers to “above-the-scenes” Cirque du Soleil riggers.

“Most of their riggers come from performance backgrounds, from families of high wire, trapeze and contortion acts. I remember one guy in a class I was teaching was sitting on a little wooden stool and during a break he lifted himself from a sitting position up into a handstand balancing on the chair — and he did lighting.”

Interactions with people like that, he says, convinced him he’s found the meaning and job satisfaction that he’d been looking for.

“It’s cool because you’re working with these guys who are already so professional, they have so much in-depth experience and knowledge, and you’re there talking about fall protection and they’re like, ‘Wow, that is really cool. How do you do that?’ That’s a really good feeling to have.”

Just as important, he knows the training he provides helps save lives.

“Just about every industry is going to have some kind of fall protection need,” he says. “But sometimes they can be surprising.

“I never expected to work with a furniture company, for example, but we recently did some work with IKEA,” he says.

Then there was the job installing safety lines in the catwalks high up the massive warehouse-sized sound stages at NBC-Universal Studios in Hollywood.

Initially, Paulk spent about half the year on the road doing mobile training, but these days he spends most of his time at Gravitec’s training campus and headquarters just across the Puget Sound from Seattle, where he helps design custom training programs and installations for new and existing clients.

“A lot of what we do is custom creations. So, maybe a guy says, ‘I’m not a window washer, so I don’t need the rope access class as you teach it, but I install billboards. I just need to show my guys how to set up an anchor point and how to go over an edge and use their fall protection equipment properly.’ And so we’ll create a new class for that one guy for that one thing he does. If someone has a need, typically we can figure out a way to make it work.”

And not infrequently, that’s also meant helping people overcome their own fears of heights.

 “We have people who come through here who work on 300-foot towers day in and day out, but also some that have never even worn a harness before.

“If you’re afraid of heights, the best thing to do is go to high places. Of course, you need good safety gear, and you need to know how to use it. But that fear will start to go away as you learn to trust your equipment and expose yourself to height.”

It’s also important to remember that “the confidence you build up is perishable. If I’ve been away from working in certain situations for a while, I’ll be a little nervous at first. That’s natural.”

The bigger challenge is the inevitable tough guys who won’t admit that discomfort.

“They’ve built up this persona that they’re focused and strong at heights. But then they get up there, they start moving fast because they’re actually nervous. That’s when you start making mistakes,” he says.

“You have to be able to look that fear in the face. To name it. You have to say, ‘This makes me feel uncomfortable. I need to make sure everything I’m doing is slow, and careful, and methodical.’ Acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on.”

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