The final paragraph of Army Lt. Matt Spartz's Veterans Day column, I told him, put a lump in my throat first time I read it. It said: "But most of all, we honor our fallen brothers. To those I've served with: It has been an honor and my greatest pleasure. To those we've lost: You'll never be forgotten."
I'm certain similar words were written and spoken far and wide on Veterans Day, but for me, they carried a special poignancy coming from Matt, whom I, and I suspect many others at the Daily Herald, have come to think of as a friend. Through the Lombard resident's dispatches from Afghanistan, which started in May 2010, we (and I certainly hope our readers) have followed Matt with a combination of respect, admiration and worry.
In his first column, on the eve of his deployment, Matt shared his wide-eyed eagerness to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a soldier with a football analogy. "It's a lot like when I played football at Glenbard East High School in Lombard. ... Deploying after three years of Army training has been like double football practices during hot Chicago summers, practicing after school all week, and finally getting to play varsity on Friday nights."
On his first foray into battle: "It fulfilled the stereotype many people experience -- war is 10 percent horrible, frightening violence and 90 percent horrible, excruciating boredom."
On his part in a battle that claimed six American lives and his own wounding: "My greatest fear was not death. I've been incrementally inoculated from the physical pains of war with every rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that blew up within 20 feet of me without harm, and every bullet that has kicked up the dirt next to me, including the one that found a place in my right arm. My greatest fear has always been that during the crucial time, when another soldier needed me the most, I would fail him."
And, perhaps my personal favorite, on how the words of encouragement, care packages from back home keep our troops happy and motivated: "The generosity of American families is the thing of legend. When our dusty 20-ton up-armored trucks roll into an outpost with a trailer full of boxes, there is a collective sigh of excitement and warmth from every unit. We are not forgotten! The world has kept spinning! Some back home cry out about the unbelievable cost of this war, but that hasn't deterred thousands of Americans from spending their pocket money on Ramen noodles and beef jerky to fuel our brothers, sisters, friends, fathers, mothers and strangers walking around this foreign country with an American flag on their shoulders."
This inspired my favorite holiday project, rounding up goodies we shipped to Matt and other members of his company. It also was great to meet Matt in person; he stopped by our office in Lisle after he returned from Afghanistan. My most vivid and proudest recollection of the lunch we shared that day was how several co-workers went up to Matt, shook his hand, and thanked him for his service to our country.
Throughout Matt's deployment, what I might have admired almost as much as Matt's courage and sense of mission was his writing skill. He's a journalism grad from the University of Illinois, but he writes well beyond his years. As his editor, I can tell you I did the most minimal of tinkering with his columns.
Matt's final day of active duty was Saturday and he's out of the Army next month. He's not likely pursuing a career in journalism, and he's planning to live in the St. Louis area to be near his girlfriend, Brittney. Too bad for us. But Matt is leaving us with one last column, on the drawdown of troops from Iraq, which we expect to publish soon,
I bet you'll like it. I know I do.