Sitting quietly in his Business Law class at Azusa Pacific University attentively taking notes, Matt Blain ’14 tries to blend in. His classmates are unaware they are in the presence of a decorated war hero, and the humble former Army staff sergeant prefers it that way.
Thanks to the post-9/11 GI Bill, Blain like more than half a million veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, is making the transition from service member to college student. At 28, the business administration major faces greater responsibilities than many traditional undergraduate students. His wife,and two young children, now motivate him to succeed in college as he did in the Army.
Blain grew up hearing stories of his courageous grandfather George Blain, a member of the 101st Airborne “Pathfinders” who parachuted into France the night before D-Day, earning four Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. Inspired by his grandfather’s bravery and the events of 9/11, Blain followed in his footsteps and enlisted in the Army after high school.
“My grandfather passed away while I was a child but his stories stuck in my head,” Blain said. “Then 9/11 happened and I remember feeling this sense of purpose. By serving in the military, I could make a positive impact in the world.”
During his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, Blain stepped on a landmine in the providence of Ghazni, and while his weight was not enough to trigger the explosive, the Humvee behind him did. Blain was thrown by the explosion but quickly got up, ran to the vehicle, and pulled the injured men out. “I was close with those guys,” Blain said. “It was instinctual to help them.” The Army awarded him a Purple Heart, and without hesitation, Blain chose to reenlist.
His second tour of duty in Afghanistan, placed Blain in another life and death situation involving his comrades and a military vehicle. “A vehicle had flipped into this rushing river,” Blain said. “One passenger was ejected. He was floating down the river and was going to drown because of his heavy vest. The other three were trapped inside. The current was incredible.”
Blain, and a sergeant who came to help, pulled the man from the river to safety. Then Blain fearlessly dove in, swam to the upside down vehicle, and somehow managed to pull open the 500-pound door to rescue two of the three men inside. Within moments, others arrived to help save the third passenger who had to be cut free of his seat restraint. The Army recognized Blain’s bravery by presenting him with “The Soldier’s Medal” for heroism, a rare honor that he shares with former Secretary of State and retired Army Gen. Collin Powell.
During that daring rescue, Blain’s wife, Megan was seven months pregnant with their son. “I didn’t tell her right away,” he said. “I knew how worried she was about me.” Blain said his loyalty to the military began to compete with his responsibility to his wife and child on the way. “I didn’t want to spend months away from my wife and son and miss out. God had blessed me with a family and they were depending on me. Believing He is in control, I chose to leave the Army.”
Like many veterans, Blain decided to take advantage of his GI benefits and attend college, enrolling at Azusa Pacific. As a Yellow Ribbon participant school, APU could cover the complete cost of his tuition. Despite the incentive of a free college education, the brave Army soldier admitted he was apprehensive at first.“I liked the structure and camaraderie of the military,” Blain said.“The Army was comfortable to me and I worried about the transition.”
“It is common for veteran students to struggle with the transition to civilian life,” said Tammy Oluvic, APU’s director of military and veterans outreach. “However, once they learn of the resources available to them and get connected on campus, they begin to thrive, and the entire university community benefits from their unique leadership skills and experiences.”
Oluvic took it upon herself to reach out to Blain when he first enrolled at APU. “I decided to call him, introduce myself, and invite him and his wife to lunch,” she said. “We hit it off immediately and my son, Rex, a freshman at APU at the time, came along. Matt has since become his mentor. From that first meeting, I have watched Matt grow in his role as a student. He is a standout and a leader who now helps other veterans.”
For Blain, he found his own transition much smoother than he had expected. “The veterans office helped me with my benefits and I found a great support system through the on-campus veterans group,” he said. He even worked part-time in the Office of Military and Veterans Resources recruiting new students, a population that has increased on campus by 38 percent since last year. “I let veterans know APU is a Military Friendly School that provides a welcoming environment with faculty and staff who want us to succeed,” he said.