A military career comes full circle

Sargent High School grad now leading CSU’s Army ROTC program

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On Saturday, Nov. 4, Lt. Col. Matt Tillman and Col. Gregg Johnson — who lead Colorado State University’s U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force ROTC programs, respectively — had the honor of ringing the Old Main Bell before the Rams took on San Diego State for Military Appreciation Day. It was an honor for both leaders, and as Tillman stood outside the Iris and Michael Smith Alumni Center listening to the bell peal, it was a moment for the Professor of Military Sciences to reflect on a life and military career that has come full circle.

Born and raised in Monte Vista, Lt. Col. Tillman had a bit of a culture shock when he arrived in Fort Collins. His high school class was a mere 32 people, so the CSU campus was a bit overwhelming with the number of students marching back and forth to class and the dorms. But as he was moving into Edwards Dorm on move-in day, he immediately found a piece of home.

“My now wife Chelsea conned me into moving a couch into her dorm room on that first day,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been special knowing we started and will end our story here at CSU.”

Finding the love of his life so quickly was a fortunate moment for the new freshman, but his life and military path was not so straightforward.

“Ever since first grade, I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he explained. “I did my first two years at CSU in the U.S. Air Force ROTC, but then they told us we had to be engineers if we wanted to fly. I realized I wanted to be in the dirt, and that’s what the U.S. Army was all about.”

Lt. Col. Tillman transferred to the Ram Battalion (the U.S. Army side of the ROTC that he now leads) in his junior year and from the first time he stood at attention for the Army, he knew he was home.

“I really fit in [with the Army]. It matched my personality of making things up on the fly and having a more tactical viewpoint,” he said. “I remember spending hours in the Military Science Building on a sand table arranging tiny army men in different tactical positions to accomplish different tasks.”

Just a few months after receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, Lt. Col. Tillman eloped with Chelsea before heading to San Antonio, Texas, for more training as a Medical Service Corps Officer, before being assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. It was 2004, and the U.S. had just invaded Afghanistan (Lt. Col. Tillman remembers experiencing Sept. 11, 2001, as a cadet on campus), and he was a bit bewildered by what was coming next.

“Most of the soldiers on the base had just seen combat and were preparing to redeploy to the Middle East. Suddenly, I was in charge of a Medical Platoon responsible for taking care of 450 soldiers, as well as providing security for our base in Iraq that we arrived at in late 2005,” he explained.

It was a lot of on-the-job training and “oh, crap” moments, but like any soldier can and must do, Lt. Col. Tillman relied on his training, his experiences, and the confidence that told him he was right where he needed to be.

“It was my first time being out of the country, and I was convinced I wouldn’t come back from Baghdad, but my personal mission was to do whatever I must to keep the fight out of the U.S.,” he said.

Lt. Col. Tillman would eventually deploy to the Middle East twice (in 2005 to Iraq and to Afghanistan in 2008), before returning stateside to continue training and leading medical troops in Texas and Washington State. In 2020, right as he was helping set up mobile COVID-19 clinics in Seattle, Washington, Lt. Col. Tillman had the opportunity to return to his alma mater as Professor of Military Science and lead the Ram Battalion and ROTC program.

“During the pandemic, you really find out how socially connected the cadets are,” he said with a laugh. “There’s really been no better way or place to end my 21 years of service to the nation than in helping prepare the next generation of soldiers, leaders, and war fighters right here at home.”

Like his U.S. Air Force counterpart Col. Johnson, Lt. Col. Tillman isn’t one to sit behind his desk and bark commands. He’s out there doing physical training with the cadets, teaching them about the newest military tactics, and even doing a pushup or two whenever the Rams score on gameday (he and Col. Johnson were both on the ROTC Pushup Squad during their cadet days).

“I have to physically be out there doing my part to make sure we maintain that reputation and showing these 20-year-olds, ‘if I can do this, you can do this,’” he said.

That dedication led Lt. Col. Tillman to be the newest recipient of the U.S. Army Cadet Command’s Professor of Military Science of the Year Award. It’s an illustrious award (one of many Lt. Col. Tillman has received in his career, which includes receiving the Bronze Star, twice), and not just because he had stiff competition with the more than 274 ROTC programs spread around the country, but because it highlights the success of the team.

“I wish it wasn’t an individual award, because there are so many contributions from so many people, and it’s purely a reflection of the things people have done around me,” he said.

From the active-duty cadre to President Amy Parsons, and everyone in between, Lt. Col. Tillman is quick to point out how leadership and success is a cumulative product, and he especially calls out Col. Johnson.

“It’s awesome to have someone else so committed to the University, especially since we’re both CSU Rams, which we will always be,” he said. “He’s my big brother helping carry the next generation to a higher level. He’s the methodical pilot, I’m the improviser barreling into things – it works out well.”

So well, that most people on campus don’t even distinguish between the two branches on campus. It’s just “the ROTC.”

“When I think of our ROTC and our cadets, we’re gritty, mountain kids who work hard and take care of others. That’s our heritage and lineage. There are [universities and programs] that are older, but they don’t have our culture. The military and ROTC are part of CSU’s DNA, and our University gives us a great environment with access to resources, so there’s an expectation of us. That inspires us to hold the program and ourselves to a higher standard. It’s nice to know we make the University proud.”

Lt. Col. Tillman will joke that he and Johnson are “the two weirdos in uniform over by the railroad tracks,” but that doesn’t detract from his mission, commitment, or dedication to the same program that gave him so much.

“Taking care of people is taking care of people, no matter what, and that’s what we do as Rams,” he said. “I always tell the cadets ‘have humility and empathy: you will screw up, but what better way to create and instill trust than by owning up to your mistakes?’ That’s the reputation we have, and I’m honored to have done everything I can to make sure we maintain that reputation.”