From helos to chapels: The journey to helping others

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

While the dust settles for just a moment before the hot wind whisks it away once more in the desolate Nevada desert, the Chaplain is making his rounds. He’s chatting up Remotely Piloted Aircraft Airmen and checking up with how they’re doing, however, he’s no ordinary Chaplain.

Today, Chaplain Matthew uses knowledge acquired over a 25-year military career serving in multiple specialties throughout different branches of service to counsel and assist combat Airmen.

Matthew, who today holds the rank of captain in the U.S. Air Force, started his career in the U.S. Army as an enlisted airborne infantryman. During those days he described himself as rough around the edges, but throughout the years his journey has led to a complete transformation into the cool, calm and collected individual, who focuses on caring for Airmen and their families.

Admitting he wasn’t a very good student in high school, Matthew explained that history taught by Mr. Hankins was one class he actually enjoyed, and proved to be pivotal in his story.

“Mr. Hankins brought the class to life when he discussed topics like the beginning of the Revolutionary War,” Matthew said. “He brought out my early desires to be one of those people willing to lay down their life to serve others. I still say Mr. Hankins was the one who initially motivated me to join.”

Just four days after graduating high school in 1993, 17-year-old Matthew left his small hometown in Indiana to fulfill his contract to the Army as an airborne infantryman, his dream since the age of 15. After completing Basic Military Training and airborne school, Matthew applied for Ranger training at Fort Benning, Georgia, as fast as he could.

While Matthew was performing the rigorous physical training, an honor guard recruiter approached the Ranger students and spotted Matthew who met the requirements. Shortly after, he was sent to Fort Myer, Virginia to complete honor guard training instead.

For the next five years, Matthew served at various dignified burials, military ceremonies at the White House and Pentagon. He would spend nine months of the year serving as an honor guardsman while the other three months were spent keeping up his infantry qualifications.

While training at the Army Air Assault School, an opportunity came in the form of a messenger of sorts.

“As part of a training for the non-commissioned officers at the Air Assault School, they were being tested on how to tie the ropes and give commands, but they needed people who were willing to rappel out of a helicopter all day…I was one of them,” he said. “After we landed for a break, a Chief Warrant Officer 2 walked up to me and said that I should go to flight school.”

Confused while still chewing his Meal Ready-To-Eat, Matthew didn’t think it was possible, but the officer urged Matthew to take the chance without letting things like workload or self-doubt get in the way.

The young honor guardsman took the shot even when he didn’t think there was a chance in the world of being selected. Just a few short months after, via a friend’s dial-up internet service, he received his acceptance into the Army’s Warrant Officer Program and helicopter flight school.

“Up until that point I hadn’t really thought very highly of myself and yes, I was in the Army, but I didn’t really know what I was doing…this was a career I could be proud of,” he said. “Serving in the honor guard was great, but being selected for pilot training was a game changer.”

Although he didn’t have much of a desire to become a pilot as a teenager, while in flight training, Matthew tackled his academics harder than ever. Upon graduation, as he hovered over the flight line in his A model Apache helicopter in front of his many family members, he said not only were they extremely proud, he was as well.  

Just like the pilot who introduced Matthew to the idea of flying, special forces officer Doug Frank, Matthew’s neighbor at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, would change Matthew’s life in 1999.

“He’s the one who invited me to church when I wasn’t a believer at all,” Matthew said. “My wife and I went to church that Sunday and have never been the same since.”

This marked the very beginning of Matthew’s transformation and growth to who he would become in the following years.

During those years, Matthew deployed multiple times, became an aircraft commander and an instructor pilot at Fort Rucker, Alabama. As time went on, Matthew continued to grow in his faith and began dedicating himself to it. As he felt his life changing with God’s word, he quit bad habits such as drinking, smoking and using profanity, finding ways to improve himself and his fellow service members.

As Matthew came up for his next rank of Chief Warrant Officer 3 in 2003, he needed to fulfill the bachelor’s degree requirement. Hungry for knowledge and understanding, he chose biblical studies as his major. With degree in hand, another opportunity presented itself.

“One day someone in church suggested I should teach the youth about the bible since I was an instructor in the military,” Matthew said. “Next thing I knew I was preaching in front of people for the next few years.”

In 2005, his active duty contract came to an end and he transitioned into the Army Reserve. After a couple of National Guard and Reserve opportunities didn’t pan out, he made the decision to go back to Fort Rucker as a contract instructor pilot.

A few years later, during a career fair, an opportunity arose by way of a military contractor offering Matthew a job to fly Russian Mi-17 helicopters in Afghanistan. This path would provide the chance for Matthew to do his part in the Middle Eastern conflict. 

This was also the time when Matthew began using his benefits to start going to seminary school online to pursue a future as a pastor.

Two years after working at the position, Matthew received a call from parent company Northrup-Grumman which offered him the job of Chief Pilot.

“At this point I was still taking seminary classes, serving in the Army Reserve and now as the Chief Pilot for Northrup-Grumman,” he said. “Three weeks into the contract they offered me the Deputy Program Manager position.”

Part of the mentioned contract was providing aviation maintenance and logistics for the Air Force’s 438th Air Expeditionary Wing. The other part was flying counter narcotic-terrorism operations with coalition special forces and DEA teams while training Afghans. During this time, Matthew led and participated in dozens of combat missions across the entire country, usually flying below 50 feet, and carried some of the most elite operators in the world.

“In 2012 I turned down offers to run programs in Washington D.C., decided to get out of the aviation business and go into full-time pastoral work,” Matthew said. “We moved to Chicago for a pastoral residency at Harvest Bible Chapel where I served as the executive assistant.”

After learning the ins and outs of counseling, mentoring and guiding he was planted near Granger, Indiana as a full-time pastor. During the next three years, he grew as a pastor while also serving as an Army Reserve pilot.

Coming up on retirement eligibility, he had an important decision to make.

“I was planning on retiring from the Army Reserve,” he said. “Even though my wife and I had always considered military chaplaincy, I never felt ready until those three years in Indiana. I knew I had a decision to make. I was still a reservist with the Army and it was difficult because I was gone a lot. This is when I realized I only needed six more years for an active duty retirement.”

Matthew also said it seemed like a silly idea to not complete his active duty career, but to be a military chaplain he still had another 13 seminary classes to finish before he could apply. This was a daunting task considering the size and scope of his pastoral responsibilities at his church. He couldn’t just take off the time to finish his degree.

To alleviate his conflictions of the situation, Matthew consulted the elders of the church for guidance. With their support he buckled down and made the time to finish his coursework, oftentimes at the expense of his sleep.

Once he met the requirements and submitted the application, it was to the Air Force and not the Army.

“I still get the question all the time of why I chose the Air Force,” he said. “To me it was a no brainer…because of my love for aviation and background in serving with and counseling Airmen in Afghanistan, I knew I wanted to continue my service as an Airman.”

Shortly after, in August of 2015, he was accepted.

“I was so excited when I got the news that I had been accepted into the Air Force Chaplain Corps,” he said. “I couldn’t have been more humbled and grateful.”

Matthew was then assigned to the operations group at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, where he soon realized the value of having combat experience as a chaplain.

“I wasn’t a trigger puller when I was downrange, but I carried them, and because we were 50 feet and below we were always receiving small arms fire,” he said. “My combat experience is a big deal to me because I talk to Airmen all the time who ask for my guidance and I can relate to them and truly understand what they’re going through.”

After a deployment overseas, Chaplain Matthew arrived at Creech AFB, home of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft enterprise. However, he isn’t new to RPAs such as the MQ-9 Reaper.

“During my time downrange we interacted with RPAs all the time because we had to have that persistent reconnaissance capability,” he said. “We would never see them but we knew they were up there and available if we needed it and that gave us more peace of mind conducting our operations. I’m extremely thankful for the men and women in this community.”

He continues to leverage his combat experience to help those at Creech AFB whether it’s religious in capacity or not.

“At least once a week I have Airmen tell me how nice it is that I understand what they’re going through,” he said. “I want to be able to be here and to reach those combat Airmen who otherwise wouldn’t seek out a chaplain.”

“[Having that combat experience] gives him a unique perspective,” said Hollie, Matthew’s wife. “He speaks the language and understands the stress and demands of combat and he’s able to use his personal experiences to encourage and guide others through the emotional, physical and mental difficulties that come with combat.”

Not only does he aim to help Airmen in his day-to-day official duties, but he also aims to mentor younger officers in the Company Grade Officer Council as the council president and young men and women in the Civil Air Patrol as the Nevada Wing Chaplain.

“Matt believes in servant leadership and displays this by longing to ‘be in the trench’ with his fellow Airmen,” Hollie said. “He is hardworking, ambitious and determined and in my experience, I have seen these qualities motivate those around him to strive for betterment of themselves.”

No matter how ambitious Matthew may be, he attributes his success not only to his faith but his spouse.

“I’m so thankful for my wife and everything she has done,” he said. “I couldn’t do any of it without her because she’s always been super supportive and when there’s a decision to be made, we do it as a team.”  

Matthew hopes to continue his ambition of helping others after he retires from the military. To do this, he would like to get more involved with education.

From a roughneck teenager, Army airborne infantryman to Air Force Chaplain, Matthew has undergone a transformation that has not only improved his life, but also improved countless lives of the Airmen he serves.