When he graduated from Stadium High School in Tacoma in 1990, Matthew Heatherly decided to delay his college education in order to enlist and serve his country. He spent twenty years in the U.S. Army and in 2010 retired as a first sergeant.

But an end to active duty didn’t mean an end to his Army life. He has since become an operations manager at the Western Regional Medical Command on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Madigan Healthcare System based there serves 130,000 active duty service members. Heatherly’s job is to help plan medical care for active-duty troops in the western United States, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Matthew Heatherly
Matthew Heatherly ’12 worked on his degree while serving overseas. (Brian Maki)

“My passion in life is soldiers,” Heatherly says. “They are America’s children who give of themselves to protect the ones we love.”

Heatherly himself has given much. He was a medic on two tours in Iraq. He has also donated platelets, and volunteered at the Washington Soldiers Home and Colony in Orting. For his many efforts, the Puyallup resident received the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal. The award was established in 1993 to recognize members of the armed forces and the reserves for outstanding volunteer community service.

He also organizes and participates in runs to raise money for charities like the local pediatric unit and a battered women’s shelter. He took part in Race for a Soldier, a half-marathon in Gig Harbor to support soldiers with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Several years ago, while still on active duty, Heatherly started thinking seriously about retirement. He realized a college degree would help him advance as an Army civilian employee. He had been urging other soldiers to get a degree, yet lacked one himself, even though he had taken a few college courses over the years.

Deciding to finish what he had started, he sought out a degree program that would allow him to work his classes into his military schedule, including his time stationed abroad. He wanted to be an example for his two sons, to be able to look them in the eyes and say, “If I can get my degree in Iraq, you can get yours.”

As he researched options for online education, he had one crucial criterion: “I wanted a degree that state employers would recognize as solid,” he says. In 2004, he enrolled in the online degree program at Washington State University. Because he wanted an interdisciplinary degree that could lead to work in a variety of fields, he decided to major in social sciences.

When Heatherly was deployed to Iraq, he took his online courses with him. He studied in combat zones, and sometimes was interrupted by artillery fire. He also found comfort in the world of academics. “Studying kept my mind off being across the world from my family,” he says of his wife, Holly, and sons, Nathaniel, now 18, and Aaron, now 16. He completed his degree last December.

Having reached that milestone, Heatherly is already looking ahead with plans to earn a master’s in criminal justice, again through WSU’s online program.

“A degree means that you get to choose your life,” Heatherly says, “instead of having your life dictated to you.”