At first glance, Matthew Byelich seems like an average college senior. He’s a commuter with an economics major and a political science minor.
It was just a year ago, however, that Byelich served as a sergeant for the 1st Cavalry Division at a remote base just outside Baghdad, Iraq. Barely 23 at the time, Byelich had six soldiers serving under him, faced the constant threat of attack and went on missions for weeks at a time.
So it’s understandable that the everyday norms like classes and homework just don’t faze Byelich anymore.
“It’s weird,” he said. “It’s kind of boring. The teachers were awesome about getting me back into my classes. But it’s weird going from [being] in charge of six people to just taking notes in class.”
Byelich joined the Army Reserves as soon as he graduated high school in 2003 for one purpose: to support his country in a time of war.
“Since we were a nation at war, I felt that they needed people,” Byelich said. “When we first went in, when I first signed up, it was because of 9/11. As the war progressed, it became a different matter.”
On April 22, 2006, Byelich was mobilized and sent to Fort Dix for six months of training.
“They put you through a lot of sleep deprivation,” he said. “The whole idea is [about] making decisions under a lot of pressure.”
Byelich departed for Iraq the following September; he had been promoted to sergeant by then. Meanwhile, Byelich’s family felt his absence. His sister Leann Byelich, a junior elementary education major, was “in shock” when she learned her brother was leaving for Iraq.
“My brother is my best friend,” she said. “I look up to him so much and I’m so proud of him. But I couldn’t picture my brother going there.”
Once in Iraq, Byelich and six others volunteered to split from their unit and were shipped to Fob Normandy, a remote site in Baghdad. The next few months were the most difficult, according to Byelich.
“October and November were the hardest times in Iraq,” he said. “The Saddam [Hussein] trial was coming to a close. We were getting attacked every day. It was a ‘holy s—, I’ve gotta grow up’ moment.”
But as 2006 ended, the tension began to lessen and troops were increased. By the time Byelich left Iraq, he felt as though the situation was improving.
“I just know when I left, [Iraq] was a lot better,” he said. “It was hell before I got there.”
When he wasn’t out on missions, Byelich was able to contact his family from the base, which had Internet access.
According to Leann Byelich, her brother was given enough time to call home before heading out on missions. But events like holidays and birthdays weren’t the same, she said.
“My whole family’s really involved with Christmas and it was just sad that he wasn’t there,” Leann Byelich said.
Not hearing from her brother on her birthday was even harder.
“I got a call from him,” she said. “But I didn’t have service and he left me a message. I was bawling because I had been waiting all day. That was the hardest day for me.”
Byelich served his term for the Reserves with full knowledge of when he would return home. Scheduled to return in September, Byelich learned that he would be demobilized by the end of August. His family was ecstatic.
“That was a huge surprise for us,” Leann Byelich said. “I was so relieved that I didn’t have to worry about him, that I could hang out with him.”
As Byelich came home and began to gear up for his senior year, he realized how much the experience in Iraq had changed him. Trivial matters, like the weather, no longer bothered him, which is something he noticed the first few days he was home.
“The first weekend we came back, it was raining and someone said, ‘This is miserable weather,’” he said. “Everyone seemed very negative about it, but I was [thinking], ‘Well, how’s the weather going to affect you?’”
Byelich is back to the daily grind at school, where even his professors notice a difference.
“He keeps to himself more,” said Dr. Kelly Noonan, who teaches Byelich’s Labor Market Analysis class. “He’s in a different place in his life right now.”
It’s also difficult for Byelich to be at school when most of his friends have moved on, he said.
“I would have graduated last year, so I don’t really know anybody,” he said. “I know a couple of the guys, but everything’s different. And you don’t expect that.”
Still, his sister knows Byelich hasn’t lost his “goofy” persona.
“His personality hasn’t changed,” she said. “He just takes life much more seriously. He took it as a lesson and he learned from it. He grew up.”