Constable: A decade after Afghanistan, suburban veteran ready for the Space Force

  • As a platoon leader in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Matt Spartz of Lombard earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

    As a platoon leader in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Matt Spartz of Lombard earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Courtesy of Matt Spartz

  • Lombard native Matt Spartz is an Army Reserve major assigned to the Space Force. His Los Angeles Air Force base looks more like a suburban office park with palm trees.

    Lombard native Matt Spartz is an Army Reserve major assigned to the Space Force. His Los Angeles Air Force base looks more like a suburban office park with palm trees. Courtesy of Matt Spartz

  • Their relationship, which started when Matt Spartz and Brittany Powers were students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, endured Spartz's Army stint fighting the war in Afghanistan. Now the married couple are in California, where she plans to work in the wine industry and Spartz is starting an assignment with Space Force.

    Their relationship, which started when Matt Spartz and Brittany Powers were students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, endured Spartz's Army stint fighting the war in Afghanistan. Now the married couple are in California, where she plans to work in the wine industry and Spartz is starting an assignment with Space Force. Courtesy of Matt Spartz

 
 
Updated 3/21/2020 5:01 PM

By Burt Constable

Whether he was a captain on the Glenbard East High School football team or an Army platoon leader for combat missions in Afghanistan, Matt Spartz always gravitated toward leadership positions. Now, 10 years after his combat tour, Spartz is starting a new job as an Army reservist assigned to the recently established Space Force.

 

"I was ready for something new and a new challenge," says Spartz, who works in the Space and Missile Systems Center, which a blog from the industry journal Aerotech News called "the U.S. Space Force's center of excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems."

"My focus will be on getting contracts in place for new and prototype space technologies," Spartz says.

Spartz and his wife, Brittany, moved from Indianapolis, where he had a civilian aerospace job, to Marina del Rey, California, for his new post on the Los Angeles Air Force Base just south of Los Angeles International Airport.

On top of being an Army major, Spartz is a University of Illinois-trained journalist who wrote his first Daily Herald column a decade ago.

"More than three years after first deciding to join the Army, I will finally be going on my first deployment, to the eastern provinces of Afghanistan," Spartz wrote on May 23, 2010, in his first of a series about life in a combat zone. "Two years of training in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Air Assault school, Basic Officer Leaders Course, Field Artillery school, Pathfinder school, the Joint Fires Observer school, and a full year at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in the 101st Airborne Division, and now it's time to get in the game."

He looked at the Army as a much more dangerous football team.

"This is my chance to be in a physical, active team sport, and I approached it with that same mindset," Spartz remembers thinking.

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"War is easy," he wrote in his last column on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, 2011. "Wake up, eat, walk, shoot, sleep. Repeat."

In the grueling months between those columns, Spartz saw extremes.

"An infantryman runs and rucks hundreds of miles of hardened terrain, shoots thousands of bullets, and develops orders to close in and destroy the enemy. Here, he is told to build a well for a village, so he does it," Spartz wrote on Feb. 24, 2011.

"We watch normal Afghans hanging clothes on lines in their yards and kids hitting cricket balls in their fields, no more fazed by a mortar hitting their village than an American driving past a fender bender on the interstate," he wrote on Aug. 10, 2010.

Spartz, who was awarded a Bronze Star, earned his Purple Heart on the day he was wounded and six of his fellow soldiers were killed. "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," he wrote. "My greatest fear has always been that during the crucial time, when another soldier needed me the most, I would fail him."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

His only break came after 9½ months of the daily grind of "10% horrible, frightening violence and 90% horrible, excruciating boredom," when he went to Mexico with Brittany during his leave.

"It was super bizarre. I was literally sitting on a beach in Mexico with a cocktail," he says, adding that even then he couldn't take a full vacation from his duty. "I was anxious to get back because I knew they needed my help."

His last day in Afghanistan was a memorable one.

"I literally left the day we killed bin Laden," he says. "We were in the hangar waiting for our flight from Bagram when a guy walked in and said, 'We killed bin Laden.'"

When he finally arrived back in the U.S., Spartz was sequestered at Fort Campbell on May 6, 2011, as President Barack Obama flew there to congratulate the team that killed Osama bin Laden.

"I was in the bleachers, six rows from Geraldo Rivera," Spartz says.

He officially completed his duty in December 2011 and joined the Army Reserves. He and his longtime girlfriend, Brittany Powers, married in May 2014. Employed with the Rolls-Royce aeronautical division in Indianapolis, Spartz worked his way up from buyer to senior manager for the international program, where he developed business relationships with the military in Italy and Israel, and got his MBA at Indiana University.

"We can teach you technical stuff, but we can't teach leadership and work ethic," he remembers being told.

"It took two years to get the groove of civilian life and find my footing," Spartz says. "The civilian world is a lot more open for people to assume leadership."

He was just a day away from leaving the Army Reserves when he was selected for the Army Reserve Acquisition Corps, which makes him more marketable in the civilian world and in the Army. His new office is "more like a business center," Spartz says. "Most of the civilians are curious about how an Army guy got here."

The key is his approach. The oldest of three kids born to Ray and Nancy Spartz, his name first appeared in this newspaper in 1997 as part of the honor roll for Westlake Middle School in Lombard. He was the starting center on the Glenbard East football team, threw the shot put and discus for the track team, played saxophone in the high school band, and handled bass guitar in a garage band. The Daily Herald featured him in a 2004 story after he won a Livingston Human Relations Award for his leadership and community work.

Space Force is his new commitment.

"The stakes are high and the pressure to do high-caliber things is harder," Spartz says, adding that acquiring the right materials for Space Force is more involved than finding the best plastic for a water bottle in the civilian market. "Having 100% dedication to a job, to a task, is comforting. The intensity makes it all the more compelling."

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