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.