Veteran shifts from leading in Afghanistan to leading on campus
A convoy of trucks traveled down a road in Afghanistan, soldiers on alert for explosives and snipers. But as the vehicles drove past a river, the water became an unexpected threat.
Matt Blain, a former Army staff sergeant on his second deployment, was in the lead vehicle and saw the truck behind him overturn into the raging river. He spotted an interpreter, flung from the gun turret, struggling to stay afloat. He remembers shedding his body armor as he ran back to jump into the river.
The interpreter “didn’t know how to swim, so I got him and with the help of another soldier we pulled him out of the water,” Blain said. “I ran back to the truck that was upside down and the soldiers were trying to get out of the vehicle but the armored doors were too heavy, so they were trapped.”
Once Blain opened the door, two soldiers got out while a third was trapped in a harness. Blain and another soldier teamed up to free the trapped serviceman, who by that time was underwater, breathing out of a small air bubble.
“No one was injured other than swallowing water,” he said of the event that earned him the rare Soldier’s Medal. “Everyone made it out OK.”
‘An amazing leader.’ Awarded for acts of heroism not related to enemy combat, the Soldier’s Medal is just one of the honors the Azusa Pacific University junior received during his 27 months in Afghanistan, part of his six years of duty with the Army.
“Matt is an amazing leader,” said Tammy Oluvic, director of military and veterans outreach at APU, in Azusa, Calif. “He is so proactive, he came to APU focused and ready to be successful in school.”
A business administration major, the 27-year-old Blain goes to school full time, works with the Military and Veterans Resources on campus and then comes home to wife Megan and son Jax.
“I joined the Army expecting to do it for four years,” but re-enlisted when he was in Afghanistan, he said. “When it was time for me to re-enlist again, my wife and I were talking about staying in the Army and making it a career, but we had a kid when I was gone and it changed my perspective on the career path I wanted.”
Though Blain was able to plan his leave around the birth of son Jax during his second deployment, Blain did not return until Jax was 4 months old. Missing his child’s first months was a deciding factor in Blain’s decision to leave the Army.
The couple, now expecting a second son in December, moved to Azusa when Blain chose to follow his older siblings to APU. He got involved with the veterans resource center on campus and works there now, helping fellow veterans with the transition from service to civilian life.
“The school identified there’s a need to provide information and assistance to veterans because they’re unique and have questions that most staff and faculty don’t know how to answer,” he said.
Military – and family – history. The youngest of four, Blain grew up in Orange County hearing about his grandfather George Blain, a decorated World War II hero and a pathfinder in the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into France the night before D-Day. Though the elder Blain died when Matt was a child, the paratrooper’s legacy was a major influence in the Azusa Pacific University student’s life.
“He was in battles that were well known, so I would learn about what he did through history documentaries of what happened in the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day,” Blain said. “I knew my grandfather was there (at the invasion of Normandy), he was in the Eureka set, which jumped in and secured the drop zones two hours before the invasion.”
The elder Blain can be seen in the actual World War II footage at the end of the “Band of Brothers” miniseries, Matt said.
“In the last scene they show live footage and they’re standing in line,” Blain said. “When we were watching it my dad paused it and said, ‘that’s your grandfather,’ and it was clearly him.”
Shortly after graduating from Aliso Niguel High School, Blain followed his grandfather to the Army. He was stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., as part of the 82nd Airborne Division, and went on two deployments to Afghanistan.
Using experience to help others. During his service, Blain received a Purple Heart in addition to the Soldier’s Medal. While clearing the road on his first deployment in November 2007, Blain was injured when a tank hit a mine on the side of a bridge, leaving him with a concussion and moderate hearing loss.
“I wasn’t injured enough to get medevac (medical evacuation), I actually finished my duties” before getting examined by a doctor, he said. “My left ear was damaged and I was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.”
Blain’s experiences have helped him in his work with the Military and Veterans Resources at APU. Many of the prospective student veterans who visit the campus have questions or concerns that average students would not, said reservist Air Force Lt. Col. Vic Bezjian, executive director of the office.
“Most of these veterans have had so much leadership skills training from the military, whether on a platoon level or combat level, or faced life-and-death situations, that wasting time is not a priority,” Bezjian said. “Where a typical undergrad might want to have weekends free and graduate in four years, most veterans want to get out as quickly as possible.”
As the nation celebrated Veterans Day this month, Blain was among the men and women honored for their service. But he’s not comfortable with the attention he receives for his work.
“Growing up, I’ve always looked up to military members and veterans, but now being a veteran and out of the military, it makes me realize the real sacrifice that so many families have given.”