IOWA CITY — Lt. Matt Slykhuis was poised and ready at his base in Faryab Province, Afghanistan, when the alert sounded in August 2010.
“It was a Category A, so it was urgent, and we had to be off the ground in 15 minutes, which is quick for a Black Hawk, but it’s doable,” said Slykhuis, who was then a new U.S. Army air ambulance pilot about to begin his first mission. “I ran out to the helicopter throwing on my gear and started doing the pre-flight check while the pilot-in-command got more information about the patient and the situation we were going into.”
They were off the ground in minutes, flying between the jagged mountain peaks of Afghanistan — his heart pounding, adrenaline rushing — to a recently cleared battlefield where a seriously injured soldier waited for an emergency evacuation. This was why Slykhuis joined the Army ROTC program as an undergraduate student, why he went active duty after graduation, and why he chose to become an air ambulance pilot.
“I wanted to serve my country and give guys a second chance,” said Slykhuis. “That’s what we told each other even when we learned that someone we transported didn’t make it, that at least we gave him a chance.”
The crew loaded the injured soldier onto the litter and returned to base, knowing the entire flight that Taliban and al-Qaida soldiers lurked in the valleys below, and fearing the helicopter might come under fire.
Back at base, Slykhuis and his pilot landed the Black Hawk and watched their charge whisked away to surgery to be treated for injuries he received from an IED. Slykhuis had no idea how long the mission took.
“It was just a rush,” he said. “When we came back, I felt like I hadn’t taken a breath since we left. I stood on the ground and went ‘whew.’”
Today, Slykhuis is a major in the Army and still serving on active duty. But he’s also taking classes at the University of Iowa to become an accountant.
Slykhuis is in his second year in the Master of Accountancy program in the Tippie College of Business. The 11-year veteran is participating in a training program that eventually will lead to an assignment as comptroller at an Army hospital. He started to think about a different position as the stress of flying in and out of combat zones began to take its toll.
“My wife and I have four kids now, and that shaped part of my decision,” said the Cedar Falls native. “The Army’s been good to us and I wasn’t looking to leave, but I was looking forward to a more predictable schedule.
“And I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t say that accounting is safer,” he said.
Slykhuis says a career in the Army was never in his plans, even after he enlisted. The Iraq War was at its peak when he attended Iowa State University as an undergraduate, and he said he felt the need to do something to serve his country, so he signed up for ROTC his sophomore year. He wanted to see what Army life was like, so he went on active duty after graduating in 2007. He wanted to save lives, so he trained as a medic platoon leader until an opportunity came to learn to fly helicopters and he became an air evacuation pilot.
Slykhuis served two deployments in Afghanistan, from July 2010 to July 2011 and again from March to October 2014. He flew about 35 missions on his first deployment and fewer than that during his second, which was shorter and followed the draw-down of troops from Afghanistan.
After two deployments, he says he began to wonder if it was time to do something different, something more predictable. He had always been interested in finance and numbers. Maybe his future was there.
So he called Tom Carroll, professor of instruction in accounting and director of the MAc program in the Tippie College of Business back home in Iowa. He said he was interested in becoming an accountant and wondered if his background made him a good candidate for the MAc program.
“He told me he’d already taken one accounting class, and I told him, ‘Maybe you ought to take that second accounting class and see if you really like it,’” said Carroll, who is Slykhuis’s academic adviser. “I thought it was interesting that this guy wanted to go from a being Black Hawk pilot to an administrator at Army hospitals because those are two very different skill sets.”
Slykhuis stands out in class. He’s 10 years older than most of his classmates, who enrolled immediately after receiving their undergraduate degrees. He’s had more life-and-death experience than most of them combined. His lack of an undergraduate degree in accounting also sets him apart. But Carroll said Slykhuis’s varied life experience and wisdom benefit the his classmates.
“He gets along with everybody, and he’s very attuned to working with young people and helping them along,” Carroll said. “It’s a big advantage to have students with different backgrounds in our program, and he really helps with that. He knows how to solve a problem with whatever you have, to make do with what you’ve got, and that sets an important example for other students.”
Slykhuis also has the gift of perspective.
“He was a mechanical engineering student at Iowa State, so he has no problem handling the rigor, and after seeing what he’s seen in Afghanistan, a difficult accounting problem isn’t very serious,” Carroll said.
Slykhuis said he’s pleased to be back in Iowa for two years and close to home, but the tragedy he saw touch so many families in Afghanistan touched his own family about the time he returned. His father, legendary Cedar Falls High School boys’ basketball coach Jerry Slykhuis, and his mother, Jane, were killed in a traffic accident in December 2016, just days before Matt was going to tell them of his plans to move back to Iowa, and their grandchildren would be just a 90-minute drive away. Then, a year later, his brother, Steven, died after an illness in December 2017.
The losses hit his family hard, but like one does in the Army, Slykhuis said you learn to lean into each season of life and keep moving forward. Slykhuis plans to graduate in May 2019 and will report to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio as an intern to learn the Army’s resource-management system.
After that, he’ll be assigned to an Army hospital somewhere in the U.S. He likes accounting, he says, and he likes the health care setting. It’s a skill he says he can use anywhere.
“I can do this for the rest of my life,” he said.
CEDAR FALLS — Beau Andersen worked for months throughout the summer in a hot, gritty garage for the comfort of others.
For his Eagle Scout project, “Comfort Through Literacy,” Beau, with the help of some fellow Scouts and a member of his church, built 10 book houses to be placed throughout UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital in Waterloo.
The book houses, similar to the popular Free Little Libraries, are in several areas of the hospital for patients and families to take books and read as they wish.
“It’s a tech-driven time in our world right now,” Beau said. “Everybody is always on their phone. I thought it would be nice to see people reading more books.”
The book houses, filled with donated books, are located in surgical waiting rooms, a women’s clinic area, the pediatrics unit and other spaces at Allen.
“I was very impressed by him,” said Joyce Coil, hospice development coordinator with the Allen Foundation. “He took the ball and just ran with it. It’s a great project for the hospital.”
Beau, 16 and a junior at Cedar Falls High School, spent the summer cutting the patterns and assembling the houses. He visited every area of the hospital where a book house would be placed to make sure each was painted in the same color palette as its surroundings.
“If definitely took a lot longer than I anticipated, but that’s part of life,” he said. “Actually, putting them together was the hardest part, making sure the parts fit together. We had to make that work.”
Beau joined the Boys Scouts of America as a second-grade Cub Scout and achieved his Eagle Scout rank earlier than most.
“He didn’t have to (complete his Eagle Scout project) until he’s 18,” Coil said. “I’m impressed that he’s so on top of things. The Scouts who go on and get their Eagle Scout (recognition) are becoming fewer and farther in between. But when they apply to college or for a job, that’s one thing people look at to see if they got that completed. Beau was motivated enough to do that.”
Beau’s future plans include military service and possibly a career in politics — both careers “that can help people,” he said.
Coil said he’s off to a great start with the book houses project.
“It’s a wonderful thing for our patients and their families,” she said.
DES MOINES — While opioid addiction in Iowa is a growing problem that garners much attention, a more familiar drug is making its own gains, showing up in a new form and with a new way of getting to Iowans.
Methamphetamine, which first rose to prominence in the early 2000s as a highly addictive and destructive drug, appears to be surging in Iowa again, leading to more treatment admissions and deaths.
The number of treatment admissions for methamphetamine use increased 38 percent in Iowa from 2014 to 2017, and more than doubled from 2011 to 2017, according to the state public health department.
And meth is now the second-most reported drug by adults who enter treatment, moving ahead of marijuana for the first time and behind only alcohol, the state said.
The increase in use is having fatal consequences. The number of meth-related deaths in Iowa increased eight-fold from 2011 to 2017 — from 12 to 96 — according to state figures. As of Tuesday, there were 76 meth-related deaths in Iowa so far this year.
The cost of meth has fallen significantly and it is typically purchased and delivered rather than homemade, possibly helping contribute to the recent increases in treatment admissions and deaths, Iowa law enforcement officials said.
“Methamphetamine has had a stronghold in northwest Iowa for the last 20 years,” said David Drew, the Woodbury County Sheriff and a board member of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association. “It never really slowed down.”
When meth first burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, it was primarily a homemade drug, made in so-called meth labs, typically found in abandoned buildings or homes. The white, odorless, powdered drug was made by combining pseudoephedrine, which is used to treat nasal and sinus congestion, with lithium from batteries and ammonia nitrate, among other ingredients.
States, including Iowa, passed laws that moved pseudoephedrine off store shelves so it had to be distributed by a pharmacist, which allowed for its sale to be tracked.
Meth labs have become increasingly rare, but users are getting the product in a new way: it’s produced elsewhere — often from outside the U.S. — and shipped to the buyer.
Meth is being transported into the country illegally, especially across the southern border, law enforcement officials said.
“We used to see a lot of meth labs locally. That’s dropped off almost entirely,” said Mike Colby, a captain with the Clear Lake Police Department and a member of the North Central Iowa Narcotics Task Force. “Locally produced meth is few and far between. You have a lot of higher-grade, super-lab meth made in Mexico and California and other areas, and that’s being brought into the U.S. through our southern border. ... There’s been a huge influx of meth from other countries coming in through our porous borders over the last 10 years.”
The cost of meth has fallen dramatically, becoming more affordable to users, law enforcement officials said, which would also help explain any increase in use. What once sold for between $1,600 and $1,700 per ounce or $15,000 per pound now goes for less than a third of that: between $450 to $600 per ounce, James Rieck, director of the Quad City Metropolitan Enforcement Group, told the Quad-City Times.
“Just depends on who you get it from and what kind of connections they have,” Rieck said.
Also complicating the latest rise in meth use is the more pure form the drug has taken in recent years, law enforcement officials said.
Drew said when the drug was first a problem roughly two decades ago, some of it would be only 10 percent meth. Now, Drew said, it is almost 100 percent pure meth.
“Purity is really the biggest thing that would make us all worried,” Drew said. “I think you’re going to have some major issues from how pure it is and what they’re doing with it. It is a concern. ...
“The price has gone down and the purity has gone up.”
The battle to address meth use and addiction is ongoing, law enforcement officials said. Drew noted the Woodbury County Sheriff’ Office in the late 1990s joined a tri-state task force with officials from Nebraska and South Dakota, yet 20 years later the battle continues.
“I could tell you that we received some national awards because we dismantled some meth organizations, had a couple hundred defendants, but it just never slowed down,” Drew said. “The numbers are still the same, sometimes even more. ...
“I know a lot of people I put in prison for years, they just said it was highly addictive and their lives got ruined. Now they’re out, some I think are doing very well. But it’s a constant battle for them, I’m sure, with that addiction.”
More resources are needed to fight meth addiction and the growing abuse of and addiction to opioid painkillers, Colby said. He said some users are becoming addicted to both meth and opioids.
“We’re spread thin,” Colby said. “With the heroin epidemic working its way through our country, we’re having to fight to major drugs with the same resources. ... This is not something we’re going to beat or be able to stay on top of without some additional resources.”
The state public health department said it is working with prevention and treatment centers to assess how meth use is impacting Iowans in all 99 counties, and that those assessments involve discussions with many stakeholders, including law enforcement officials.
A spokeswoman for the state public health department encouraged anyone seeking more information about methamphetamine use, including to find treatment options, can visit the department’s website yourlifeiowa.org.
“What we’re focusing on is identifying how meth is impacting Iowans,” said Katie Bee, with the state public health department’s substance abuse division, “and creating those resources.”