A Call to Duty
“Where were you, what were you doing on 9/11?”
That question, now asked annually every September since 2001, leads to an answer that has two-sided significance: It reminds us of our nation’s history and makes us recall our own. “Where exactly were you, what exactly were you doing when planes crashed in New York City, Washington, D.C. and in a farmer’s field in Pennsylvania and our country’s trajectory took a dramatic turn?” “Where exactly were you, what exactly were you doing when the World Trade Center fell down in flames, smoke and ash?”
Like every American old enough to remember, Matthew Garvelink ’96 recalls exactly where he was and what he was doing on that tragic day. It is what he did next, though, that is the reason for the rest of this story.
“That morning I was working at the (Holland) Municipal Stadium because there had been a weekend football game,” remembers Garvelink, a Holland, Michigan, native who majored in biology, with a secondary teaching certificate, at Hope. “I was between jobs and no longer teaching because I had gone back to school and had just finished a second degree in criminal justice from Grand Valley (State University). So the work at the stadium was temporary because I had decided I wanted to pursue becoming a Michigan State Police Officer.
“Anyway, I remember we had the radio on at work that day, and all of a sudden what we were listening to was interrupted with news about the attacks. We went straight to the nearest TV. Of course, I didn’t realize we were under attack until the real stories came to light.”
When those real stories revealed the United States’ new reality across the following days, weeks and months, Garvelink knew what he had to do. And he was full-circle back at the Municipal Stadium several weeks later when he had to do it.
“I called the Air Force recruiter to ask about officer training school from the telephone in the press box of the stadium,” he recalls. “All I knew is that I wanted to be a part of the solution moving forward. I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines. I wanted to be engaged, to be on the starting team so to speak.”
Unlike the mass enlistments that occurred after the Pearl Harbor attack that marked the U.S.’s involvement in World War II in 1941, the armed forces saw only a very slight increase in new military men and women after September 11, 2001. Garvelink was not only one of the few to enlist after that national watershed event, he is rarer still in making military service his career ever since. Sixteen years after graduating from Officer Training School in June of 2002, Garvelink has been deployed to Iraq five times since 2004, trained with the Royal Air Force (RAF) Regiment in the U.S. and U.K., worked contingency response ops out of Germany, and served in or with every country in NATO.
And, according to the college’s records, of the approximately 125 Hope alums (out of 32,000+) who are actively serving in one of the four branches of the U.S. military, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Garvelink is among the highest ranking.
Since 2015, Grissom Air Reserve Base in Peru, Indiana, has been home for Garvelink, a straightforward, down-to-earth, quintessential military man. There he serves as commander of the 434th Security Forces Squadron, which means he directs the base’s defense unit, which consists of approximately 150 full-time and reservist airmen. His three years stationed at Grissom are the longest continuous period of time he’s been stateside since his commissioning. In fact, during one particular four-year period of his military tenure, Garvelink was on U.S. soil for only 13 out of 48 months. Whenever he is home, though, the officer, and yes, gentleman, makes time for three things — family, fishing and Hope.
“Hope definitely didn’t teach me to look at life through a soda straw. I think more broadly because of Hope, and I still find myself using things I learned in my philosophy class and my education classes and my music appreciation class and my biology classes to this day.
My education from Hope makes me stop and say, ‘Hey, what are we really doing here? Let’s think critically about this and not just plow through without considering all angles.’”
“My mom and dad and brothers are all still in the Holland-area, so being closer to them has been a blessing and a privilege,” says Garvelink, who is single. “I like chasing largemouth and smallmouth bass around the state and country whenever I get the chance, too. And connecting with Coach Fritz and Hope baseball again has also been great.”
Back in his Hope days, Garvelink served as the student manager for the baseball team for his last two years at the college, which were also head coach Stu Fritz’s first two with the Flying Dutchmen. Their resulting friendship has been forged from mutual respect for more than two decades. Both will admit that communication between them is sometimes hit-or-miss, especially when Garvelink is deployed, but one way the coach continues to see his friend is on base. For the past two years, Garvelink has invited Fritz and the Hope baseball team to visit his work environment as they made their way to play a nearby opponent in Indiana. As the Hope bus pulls into the military complex, past the fence barrier and checkpoint, life lessons immediately begin to unfold. The Hope-to-Grissom stopover is a chance for students, who grew up in the long-cast shadow of 9/11, to see how a national team practices tenacity, commitment, accountability, trust, loyalty and leadership, all for the sake of others.
“For our guys to go onto that base and see men and women who serve for our benefit, it’s just important,” Fritz says. “And our team doesn’t take any of it for granted. When Matt explains about the red line around the tarmac, the line that marks the threshold for intolerance of intent to harm, that kind of stuff really hits home for our guys. They take it all very seriously. It’s just good for them to know what people are doing to protect them and the privileges they have.”
Ever humble and equally matter-of-fact, Garvelink simply says his time with the team is just a way to give back and inform. Others see it as something more; they see it as something that comes naturally to him.
“Lieutenant Colonel Garvelink is someone who is very hands-on and leads by example,” says Colonel Scott Russell, the mission support group commander and Garvelink’s boss at Grissom. “He is very dedicated to his job and puts his work first above himself. I’ve never seen him put himself above anything else.”
“When you look at his record, too, it is pretty amazing,” Russell continues. “The number of times he’s deployed, some of the stuff he’s done like working closely with the Army in some pretty austere environments — and I can’t get into any details about that — it shows he takes his job very seriously and takes his people very seriously as well.”
While those accolades are attributable to Matt Garvelink being Matt Garvelink, the longtime serviceman actually believes Hope gave him a unique advantage as a military leader. The best part about his liberal arts education, he says, is that it didn’t necessarily teach him what to think but it did teach him how to think.
“Hope definitely didn’t teach me to look at life through a soda straw,” he colorfully explains. “I think more broadly because of Hope, and I still find myself using things I learned in my philosophy class and my education classes and my music appreciation class and my biology classes to this day. My education from Hope makes me stop and say, ‘Hey, what are we really doing here? Let’s think critically about this and not just plow through without considering all angles.’”
That type of wide-reaching, cerebral outlook is completely and absolutely foundational to success in the complex and sometimes ultra-violent world of leading troops in the field. It’s also an imperative part of his peacekeeping missions as well. Whether it’s helping Iraqi farmers secure plastic field covering so they can grow tomato plants in an inhospitable climate rife with wartime chaos, or looking into the faces of village children who needed his help, Garvelink is always moved by the resiliency of humanity and, unfortunately, the atrocities of inhumanity, too. Like most soldiers who have seen war, he’d much rather talk about the former than the latter.
In early 2019, Garvelink will deploy again to the Middle East. He can’t say exactly where he’s going, or what he’ll be doing, though he does know. What he can say is that unlike his previous deployments, air conditioning will be abundant and coffee easily attainable. And like his previous deployments, he’ll get to work alongside those who, like him, feel a similar, sacrificial call to duty.
“I like this job because of the people,” Garvelink concludes. “I don’t want to sound crass, but if we were in charge of cleaning outhouses and I got to do it with the people I work with in the Air Force, I know it would be the best job ever done in service to this country. The people I get to work with are amazing, from every walk of life, from every part of this country. When we come together, we can do anything we put our minds to. When I think about my country, I think about the people on my team who represent it. They are my country.”