HURLBURT FIELD, FL (Sr Airman Ryan Conroy) – In the twilight hours of an August Wednesday morning in Afghanistan, a Special Tactics Airman distinguished himself as a hero.
After a long day of airfield operations on an unsecured landing zone, Capt. Matthew Roland, a Special Tactics officer assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, volunteered to drive the lead vehicle in a convoy of U.S. Army Special Forces on August 26, 2015, as he was most familiar with the route back to Camp Antonik in the Helmand Province.
All that stood between the team and camp was three Afghan-led security checkpoints.
It was a relatively calm, quiet night as the convoy rumbled past two security checkpoints without incident.
Roland proceeded to the final checkpoint, parking the bus and leaving the engine idling as the team’s Afghan translator disembarked to obtain clearance to pass.
Two guards, wearing Afghan National Defense and Security Forces uniforms, granted passage, but at that moment, one of the guards moved toward a bunker fortified with a belt-fed M240B machine gun, while the other moved toward Roland’s driver-side window.
As the guard came within five feet of Roland and raised his M4 Carbine rifle to his shoulder, Roland reacted instantly. He keyed radio to shout, “Insider attack, insider attack!” and jolted the bus into reverse. Gunfire ripped through the steel and glass of the bus’s front, taking the full effect of the M4 fire.
The 27-year-old Lexington, Ky. native was killed instantly, knowingly sacrificing himself in the line of fire to alert the convoy and to protect his teammates behind him. Because Roland did not hesitate in the face of danger, but instead reacted to protect others instead of himself, he gave his special operations teammates enough time to react and eliminate both gunmen.
Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, 31, Special Tactics combat controller, was also killed in the same incident.
Roland’s courageous actions, seconds before his death, are what led Roland’s family and friends to a small Silver Star medal ceremony in the 23 STS compound on Hurlburt Field nine months later.
Today, Roland’s selfless heroism took the form of a posthumous Silver Star medal presented to his family in his stead.
A tightknit group of 200 Special Tactics teammates and friends gathered to honor Roland and his family, silently supporting them as his parents stood and listened to the citation detailing their son’s sacrifice. Col. Roland stood at attention beside his wife Barbara, his blues pressed and sharp.
“This is about recognizing the gallantry of one of our Airmen,” Lt Gen Brad Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command and officiator of the ceremony, said about Roland’s actions. “In the face of the enemy, some people cower down, and some people step up. Actions like this take a lot of courage, poured on top of sacrifice, poured on top of intense training.”
Roland had two weeks left before he was due home from his third deployment, painting a clear picture of dedication to his country and the Special Tactics mission.
But it wasn’t always about the mission; to many, Roland was the guy people depended on, turned to, looked up to. He was, to quote a teammate, “the kind of man other men strive to emulate.”
“His actions on that night do not surprise me,” retired Col. Mark Roland, Matt’s father, said. “He was a warrior, a leader and more than that, a servant leader whose first thoughts were for those he served.”
From Eagle Scout to an Air Force Academy graduate with a degree in aeronautical engineering, Roland completed difficult tasks with a single-mindedness and sense of humor that impressed his peers and superiors.
So it was no surprise to many when he completed the rigorous Special Tactics training program in 2012 to become one of the few Special Tactics officers in the Air Force. He was trained as a military static line jumper, free fall jumper, an Air Force combat scuba diver, and a joint terminal attack controller, deploying twice to Afghanistan and once to Africa.
Even in his short time of service, Roland was a decorated veteran, earning the Bronze Star medal with V device for Valor. With this Silver Star medal, he now joins an elite group of more than 70 Airmen who received the nation’s third highest medal for gallantry in action since 9/11. Thirty-five of those medals were presented to his small community of Special Tactics Airmen.
While a Silver Star medal solidifies Roland’s legacy of valor, it won’t define the memory of Roland. To many in the Special Tactics community who knew him, those few seconds of heroism represent a lifetime of character that continues to positively impact others.
“He was loved and respected and was good at what he did. As parents, we can think of no greater tribute,” Col. Roland said. “Matthew was a true patriot; he loved what he was doing and believed in it.”
In the end, Roland was, and always will be, a man who sacrificed his life so that others may live.