ALAMOSA — To serve. To teach. To lead. To believe in something greater than oneself.
These actions describe Matthew Tillman, Monte Vista native and graduate of Sargent High School, who was recently promoted to the honorable rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army.
While those behaviors can clearly be seen throughout a distinguished military career spanning close to two decades, the origin of their roots – Matthew’s roots -- go back to when he was a boy, “playing in the dirt and inventing things” with his brother, Andrew, under the watchful gaze of his parents, John and Judi Tillman.
“He is our son,” Judi says. Four simple words that resonate with pride and respect.
Matthew had a childhood suggestive of another era. He grew up in the small town of Monte Vista and was known for being a talented athlete. “Matthew was on the All Valley football team, the basketball team, the baseball team. He was always an avid snow skier and loved water sports,” Judi says. He was a hard worker, spending summers working for a crop dusting service cleaning, filling containers and fitting the plane that sprayed the fields nearby.
He grew up as a Christian, and it was in his faith that many of his core values and commitment to serving others were first formed and strengthened as he grew older.
Teaching was literally in his genes. Matthew attended Sargent High School, a good school with small classes and a student body of around a hundred students. It was also where his mother taught English, and his father taught music and was principal before leaving to take a position at BOCES later in his career.
Those years proved Matthew to be a good student. He was Salutatorian of the Class of 2000. He also tried his hand at playing an instrument -- the trombone -- and played in the high school band. When he told his father he wanted to quit the band, his father gave him permission with one caveat. “You’re going to sing in the church choir, then.” And so that’s what Matthew did, every Sunday.
High school was where Matthew decided on a future in the military, largely attributed to the influence of his uncle, Everett Tuxhorn. “My brother is a Retired Command Sergeant Major in the Army,” Judi says. “Matthew grew up hearing him talk and tell stories. I think that helped him decide what he wanted for his life.” While still in high school, Matthew joined the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC). “He was given a full scholarship to Colorado State University from the Air Force,” Judi says. “It paid for his tuition, his books, everything.”
He entered CSU in the fall of 2000. A year later, 9/11 happened. “Matthew had friends in the Army, and I think they convinced him to go with the Army instead.” He ultimately made the change at the end of his sophomore year.
Being in ROTC at CSU was the place where he envisioned the kind of leader he wanted to be, embodied in Peter Bleich, the enrollment and scholarship officer of CSU’s ROTC program. “He had high expectations from the cadets and the program, but he was kind. He carried himself with confidence grounded in proficiency,” Matthew was quoted as saying.
CSU was also where Matthew met Chelsea, the young woman he would eventually marry. “Matthew and a friend were ‘conned’ into moving a couch to the third floor of their dorm hall for Chelsea on moving day,” Judi says. “He pursued her for the next four years until she agreed to get married.”
Both Chelsea and Matthew graduated in 2004, Chelsea with a degree in Liberal Arts and Matthew with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration. And their union is still strong to this day.
Matthew wanted to fly and initially chose Aviation, but the Army had other plans and assigned him to the Medical Services Corps where, as a Captain, he was in charge of a 72-soldier mobile hospital on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The assignment required him to go, by helicopter, to three different locations at a time when helicopters were frequently shot down. He also commanded a guard force in Iraq.
Matthew doesn’t talk much about either experience. “He took care of civilians who were attacked in a nearby village. He spoke about four boys who’d been injured by an I.E.D.,” Judi says. “He also mentioned he had to take a gun with him everywhere, even to the bathroom, and the base had been under fire for six months. He didn’t tell us any of that at the time.”
Despite being thousands of miles away, a piece of home still made it to Matthew as his parents sent him a box of cookies every other week. Chelsea, who Judi describes as “a good Army wife”, sent him boxes on the off- weeks.
Matthew always had his eye on the future. Once he was promoted to Major, he obtained his Master’s degree in hospital administration from Baylor University, one of the top three programs in the nation.
Of all his experiences while on active-duty, one stands out above the rest. With the onset of the pandemic, Matthew’s unit was given two weeks to construct a 250-bed hospital in Seattle using parts of two different Army hospitals. He accomplished what he was ordered to do, saying in an interview with the CSU newspaper, “To be able to see that side of our Army and our ability to be ready to support on the homeland is pretty neat.”
Judi refers back to who Matthew is, what kind of man he’s become. “Everywhere he and Chelsea have gone, they’ve been active in their Christian faith. He’s raised up everyone under his command. People who’ve served under him adore him. He’s a well-respected young man who’s grown in his knowledge of Christ.”
John gives a thumbs up to the last comment.
Now, Matthew and Chelsea are back in Fort Collins with three children of their own: Bryce, 9; Liam, 7; and Andrew James, who is 18 months old. Andrew, Matthew’s brother, is a successful potato farmer in the San Luis Valley. As a Lieutenant Colonel, Matthew is also back at CSU as the department head of Army ROTC and, as only seems fitting, following his family’s educator roots as the Professor of Military Science. In another strange twist, he is teaching in the same building where Judi taught as a graduate student in college.
“It’s déjà vu for us all,” Judi says.
Judi and John Tillman say, without hesitation, that both of their sons are good men. Such praise sounds well deserved and would seem to be the fruit of good strong roots planted by loving hands long ago in very familiar soil.