His warm smile beams from framed photographs in his parents’ home, but his grin is always brightest in the pictures of him in uniform.
Matthew Stiltz loved being a soldier.
He graduated in June 2005 from Shadle Park High School. Two weeks later he was off to basic training. “He wore his uniform everywhere. He was so proud to be a soldier,” said his mother, Terri Stiltz.
An infantryman assigned to the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Stiltz married Brooke in 2009. He’d already served two tours of duty in Iraq when he was deployed to Afghanistan in May 2012.
Six month later, on Nov. 12, 2012, Stiltz, 26, was killed by indirect fire in Zerok, in eastern Afghanistan.
He was posthumously promoted to staff sergeant and awarded the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the NATO Medal, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
In February, Spokane Federal Credit Union named one of its scholarships in his honor. Stiltz was a member of the credit union. “This is the first time we’ve offered a scholarship in someone’s name or memory,” said Susan Cerutti-Jensen, SFCU marketing director.
While Mark and Terri Stiltz are pleased that their son has been honored this way, the pain of his death remains fresh. Terri said, “It is still sometimes hard to believe it happened.”
Thumbing through a family album, she pointed to a Halloween photo of Stiltz and his brother, Jeff, dressed as soldiers, complete with camo paint on their faces. “He and his brother loved to play army.”
Mark Stiltz smiled. “Matt was the most stubborn and hard-headed of the kids.” Indeed, a definite glint of mischief gleams from the green eyes in the photographs.
Stiltz played trumpet and loved being part of DECA in high school. Terri Stiltz said, “He had a heart for kids – he loved children.”
Another photo shows him feeding a bottle to his sister, Kristin, 15 months his junior. His siblings are also military members. Jeff served in the Air Force and Air National Guard and Kristin, 26, recently enlisted in the Army.
A bit precocious, Matt Stiltz had his first car crash long before he earned his driver’s license. Terri Stiltz explained, “I had put Matt in his car seat and left the car running to go back and get his sister.” Somehow the 21-month-old toddler managed to wriggle out of his car seat, climb to the front and put the car in gear. Terri returned just in time to see the car slowly crash into the garage. She had the presence of mind to take a picture of Matt in front of the damaged garage.
“We gave that Buick to him after graduation,” said Mark Stiltz. Then he paused. “It’s still in the garage.”
Smiles gave way to tear-filled eyes as Terri Stiltz recounted hearing of their son’s death.
On Nov. 12, 2012, at 7:30 in the morning she answered the phone and heard her daughter-in-law sobbing. Terri Stiltz said, “She was crying so hard it was hard to tell what she was saying.”
Within seconds the message became clear. Matt Stiltz had been killed in action. “We were speechless,” Terri Stiltz recalled. “We didn’t know what to do. I immediately grabbed his picture off the wall and held it.”
Stunned, she and Mark Stiltz clung together. “When our casualty assistance officer showed up – that’s when it hit me,” Terri Stiltz said. “I fell apart when I saw his uniform. The next day we were on a plane and headed to Dover.”
The family learned Matt wasn’t even on duty when he was killed. “He’d recently passed the test for the Audie Murphy Club,” Terri Stiltz said. “He was down in the mortar pit looking for soldiers to recruit for the club.”
The Sergeant Audie Murphy Club is a private U.S. Army organization for noncommissioned officers only. Members must “exemplify leadership characterized by personal concern for the needs, training, development, and welfare of soldiers and concern for families of soldiers.”
“The mortar hit 4 feet away from Matt. No other soldiers were killed,” Terri Stiltz said.
Matt Stiltz died almost immediately – the papers for the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club scattered around him.
Terri Stiltz has saved his last voice mail message, received in June 2012. “Hi Mom, I’ve arrived at my final destination. You can send care packages … .”
A section of their home is dedicated to Matt Stiltz’s memory. Framed photos of him wearing the uniform he was so proud of abound. A Gold Star Memorial quilt is draped across a daybed. A photo of soldiers saluting as his flag-draped coffin is removed from a plane shares space with other tributes and awards.
A flag flies from their deck. “We first flew it on Aug. 5, Matt’s birthday,” Terri Stiltz said.
Honor Flight dedicated a flight in Matt Stiltz’s name and the Thunderbirds want to honor him at the upcoming air show. And now, there’s the SFCU scholarship. The attention makes Mark Stiltz somewhat uncomfortable. “Matt did a great thing, but there are many more soldiers who died. There are other people who’ve lost sons.”
When asked what Matt Stiltz would think of the attention, Mark and Terri Stiltz both smiled. “He would have loved it,” said Terri Stiltz. “He was so proud of his job.”
And they are proud of their son. “He decided what he wanted to do and went after it,” Mark Stiltz said. “He developed a vision for his future and he fulfilled it.”
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