SMSgt. Matt Zahradka reflects on time deployed overseas in Afghanistan, past Veterans Days


Matt Zahradka

SMSgt. Matt Zahradka experiences the beauties of the country during his deployment in Bagram, Afghanistan in 2009. “The country was beautiful and it’s an experience that I am so glad I got a chance to do,” Zahradka said.

Annie Leath, Staff Reporter

“We landed in Baltimore, Maryland, and we were going through customs. The customs agent waved us through, smiled and just said ‘welcome home.’ I knew I was back in the United States, and it has always stuck with me,” Zahradka said.

Last week, Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps teacher SMSgt. Matt Zahradka celebrated Veterans Day. 

Before joining the Reserves, Zahradka had to go through basic military training. 

“I was older than most people going through basic training, but I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the part [where] I didn’t have to think. I was told when to get up, when I was going to eat, what to wear and how to make my bed. My day was planned out for me so it was like a vacation,” Zahradka said. 

His decision to be a part of the military started in high school, but he decided to wait before joining. 

“I waited until I was 31 years old before I actually joined the Reserves. So I went ahead and graduated college, had a career started, and then I had time to dedicate to the Reserves,” he said. 

Though participating in the military can be challenging, Zahradka has no regrets about his experiences in the Reserves and National Guard. 

“It was one of the four most rewarding things in my life. My first is meeting my wife and having two wonderful girls and then that ranks number four after my family,” Zahradka said. 

The decision to join was rewarding in more than one way, though.

“As a matter of fact, I met my wife after I had joined [the Reserves]. She was in the National Guard and I was in the Reserves,” he said. 

After Zahradka arrived in Afghanistan on active duty, his role as a First Sergeant gave him the responsibility of keeping an eye out for about 140 other soldiers. He had spent four years in Afghanistan, and he said his unique experience left him with lasting memories.

“[The sights] were surreal. I was in the Bagram Valley, north of Kabul in Afghanistan and we were at about 5,500 feet of elevation and surrounded on three sides by 11,000-foot mountains. It was beautiful. I went there in September so I was able to see it when it was warm and when it got colder and the snow would come further down the mountain and in the valley in November,” Zahradka said. 

On Nov.11, 2009, Zahradka and other veterans were honored for their service at one of the local middle schools.

“I remember my family and I used to have a flag folding ceremony at Selvidge Middle School and the first year my wife [Sandra] and my oldest daughter were in Selvidge,” he said. “I had a chance to Skype into that ceremony from Afghanistan so I got to watch.”

During her own employment overseas in Iraq in 2011, Zahradka’s wife was able to Skype into the ceremony.

“She was going to watch our ceremony but we had to turn the volume off because she was hiding underneath her desk because they were under a rocket attack at the time. I was very nervous because my girls were with me and a very dear friend of mine who was a Vietnam veteran was with me too and he understood what was going on. I remember the principal didn’t really grasp what was happening at the time and we had to explain to them and keep it from my children that mom’s under a rocket attack right now,” Zahradka said.

After retiring from the Reserves and teaching at Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair, Illinois, Zahradka found a new opportunity to teach at Lafayette in May of 2019 as one of the AFJROTC instructors. 

“I spoke with the former Sergeant here and Dr. Calcaterra, interviewed with Lieutenant Colonel Smith, and came in for the fall of 2019. This is my fourth year of teaching and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” he said. 

Zahradka has mixed feelings about his experiences with Veterans Day.

“I’m swelled with pride and I’m sad sometimes when I think of some of the people who weren’t able to come home and who don’t get to enjoy the freedoms that they fought for,” Zahradka said.