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Service Becomes Front and Center for VA Tech Student

Matthew Wells anticipated it would be an uneventful weekend when he headed to drill with his unit in the Virginia National Guard in September 2021. He was caught off guard when he arrived at the convention center in Richmond, and those in charge began a briefing.

That’s when he understood the reality of the situation. Wells and his unit were being deployed to Iraq for air defense operations called Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar with the U.S. Army.

Just like that, his focus shifted from being a Virginia Tech student in the School of Communication to preparing for deployment overseas as a U.S. soldier.

Wells took off from classes in spring 2021 to enlist in the Virginia National Guard and begin training. He returned to classes in fall 2021 and maintained his status in the National Guard before his surprise deployment.

“I called my parents and was like, ‘Well, you know how I had drill? I’m actually getting deployed,’” said Wells, who was a junior at Virginia Tech at the time. “I was enrolled in classes here at Virginia Tech. We were leaving two days after Thanksgiving break. I had to get all of my classes done two weeks early. I had to do all my finals and any extra work I needed to do early. It was a big scramble to get everything in order.”

Nevertheless, Wells made it happen. He coordinated with Jared Woolly, his advisor and instructor in the School of Communication, to make sure he tied up all loose ends.

Matthew Wells balances life as a Virginia Tech student, squad leader in the Corps of Cadets, and member of the Virginia National Guard. Photo by Cory Van Dyke for Virginia Tech.

“That Matthew stepped away from his studies to serve his country is certainly admirable,” Woolly said. “But the preparations he took before his deployment, his keeping in touch as his deployment came to an end, and the detail with which he planned to resume his studies serves as a model for all students who take time away for any reason.”

In early December 2021, Wells left for training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for three months before flying halfway across the world to the Middle East, becoming a rarity as a current student leaving for deployment.

Wells performed air defense with the C-RAM weapon system, shooting down incoming projectiles, mainly the drones that have become a priority in warfare because of how cheap and accessible they are. While working the 12-hour night shift, Wells and his unit would spend long hours monitoring a computer and making sure the system was ready should the guns be needed for an engagement.

“I’ve always wanted to serve and help people,” Wells said. “That’s actually one of the nice things about my job overseas. It was ensuring the security and safety of everyone on that post. Where I was stationed, we had a lot of important diplomatic figures. We had just a variety of state department and other people on that base. Our entire job was to ensure the safety of them. That was very humbling knowing we had a good purpose.”

A year later, Wells and his unit were relieved by a National Guard unit from another state. Wells returned home in December 2022 having felt the intensity of being called into action at a seconds notice, experienced blinding dust storms, and picked up some hobbies, such as playing banjo, along the way.

“Specialist Wells was a tremendous asset to the success of the mission,” said Staff Sgt. A.J. Korngage of the Virginia National Guard. “His attention to details, absorption of knowledge performing his duties, moral integrity, and overall humor and kind spirit helped escalate morale within the section and throughout the entire unit. I am extremely grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity to lead and work with Specialist Wells. He is sure to have a bright future and serve as an asset wherever he goes in life.”

Now, Wells is back to balancing life as a student, squad leader in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, and personnel in the Virginia National Guard.

It took a little bit of time for Wells to get acclimated back to life as a student this semester. On one of his first days back on campus, he remembers going into Turner Place to grab a bite to eat and leaving soon after because he had a slight panic attack from the crowds of people. Still, he’s learned some valuable lessons from that year overseas that he’s applying today as a squad leader.

“One of the biggest things is taking care of the people under you,” Wells said. “One of the leaders who was in charge of me when I was overseas, he made sure that everyone under him had everything they needed. So if someone is sick, I’ll go make sure they have medicine and provide what they need to succeed. I think it developed my leadership capabilities and I’m just trying to emulate some of the things I’ve seen.”

He’s resumed his studies as a multimedia journalism major. Wells first became interested in video production and reporting while a part of a club at high school that streamed sporting events much like HokieVision. Since then, he’s enjoyed the classes within the School of Communication that are giving him a solid foundation in the field.

Wells’ goal after college is to be commissioned in active duty with the Army where he can use his communication skills.

“I would like to go into public affairs with the military,” Wells said. “They’re the ones who are the representatives with the public and with the media. They plan different events that the Army will have. Basically, it’s the Army’s public relations.”

In the meantime, he’ll continue to serve those around him in important ways, putting Virginia Tech’s motto front and center.

Ut Prosim, it really is that I may serve,” Wells said. “It’s all interconnected to helping people. That’s who I try to be.”

–  Cory Van Dyke

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