By By Tim Volkmann, West Point Athletic CommunicationsDecember 9, 2009
Sitting in the driver's seat of a lightly armored Humvee surrounded by the dead of a pitch-black Iraqi night, Matt Coulthard wasn't sure what to expect when an unmarked vehicle crept slowly to a stop directly in front of the large bush that was concealing he and his squad mates' position along the side of a road 400 meters from a remote highway checkpoint outside Baghdad. Peering through the night vision sight on his weapon, he watched as the passengers began rolling down their windows. He also spotted the assault rifles that each of them had in their hands...
The outcome of that tense encounter was just one experience that Senior Matthew Coulthard (pronounced Coal-third), now a 26-year-old Senior member of the Army football team, brought with him to the banks of the Hudson River upon his arrival four years ago following a yearlong deployment in Iraq.
Poised to graduate this spring, he is looking forward to reassuming the duties associated with his former position as an armored reconnaissance specialist, this time armed with a degree from West Point.
Following in the footsteps of several relatives, including both grandfathers who served in the armed forces, Coulthard enlisted in the Army immediately after graduation from high school in his small hometown of Tripoli, Iowa.
"I initially signed up in the summer of 2001 in a time of peace. A couple months later everything changed with the attacks on the World Trade Center. It made me even more ready for what I was going to do. It made me want to go even more than before," recalled Coulthard, the second of four children, including an older sister who also enlisted in the Army.
After spending a quick four months of basic and advanced training at Fort Knox, Ky., he was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
"Shortly after I got there, they said we were going to Iraq. We didn't know when, but we knew we were going," he said.
Only months after receiving his high school diploma, Coulthard was stepping off a plane into a furnace of whirling sand and sweltering heat that would become a constant for the next 12 months during his time in Iraq.
"The nerves were definitely pumping when we first landed. I remember that heat wave and the smell of the desert hitting me for the first time and my first instinct was to turn around and get back on the plane," Coulthard grinned.
With the tensions mounting that dark night in Iraq, it looked like Coulthard and the other men in his unit were going to have to make a decision. Unidentified men toting guns on a dark roadside couldn't be trusted. The fact that they stopped directly in the path of eight highly-trained and heavily-armed Army Soldiers could either have been planned or just a terribly unlucky coincidence.
On only the second night he was there, he and his platoon were involved in a firefight, which would prove to be the first of many in the coming months.
"Everybody reacted the way that they needed to. Nobody froze up. From then on, I felt better about it because I knew that I was with guys who were capable of doing everything and anything. I knew I was going to get through it. There were plenty of times where I was scared, but like we always said, if you aren't scared, you are crazy," he said. "I learned a lot about myself internally and what I could handle and take. I really saw what type of person I was."
Coulthard returned home in April 2004. Soon after being promoted to sergeant, he began thinking about possibly returning to school.
With the help of his platoon leader, JJ Simonsen, a 2001 West Point graduate, and Simonsen's father, Jerry, a 1973 graduate, he began putting his packet together to come to the world's premier leadership institution.
"Both of them, collectively, really helped me and supported me," Coulthard, who entered through the academy's Soldier Admission Program, said.
After spending a year at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School starting in 2005, he became one of the oldest members of the Class of 2010.
"Going from being a noncommissioned officer to being a cadet was kind of a kick in the head," Coulthard remembered. "They (the Cadet Basic Training cadre) treated me with respect, as much as they could because I was still a new cadet, but it (his prior service) made the transition a little easier."
While not many can say that being at West Point is easy, having already been battle-tested did have its advantages in the Corps of Cadets.
"Compared to my classmates who mostly came directly from high school, they had more of an adjustment, militarily, than I did," he said. "Since I already had that, I could concentrate more on the academic side and the other aspects of being here."
Coulthard's West Point experience also included walking onto the football team as a tight end.
While his role with the squad has never been a starting one, he has taken nothing but pride in playing on the practice team and prepping the first-team defense each week.
"I have enjoyed being on the team like nothing else. I was just a walk-on from the prep school and feel very fortunate that there has been a spot for me the last four years. I don't get playing time on Saturdays, but I do get to play a big role in helping the defense get ready on the scout team."
As Coulthard prepares for the 110th playing of the Army-Navy football game Saturday in Philadelphia, a game in all likelihood he will not play in, he says he has no regrets about his football career.
"I would do it all over again," he said recently before practice, getting ready for the nationally-televised game on CBS. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. It is a love for the game and for who I play with that makes it all worthwhile. I thought my last game as a senior in high school would be it, so that's why every day putting the pads back on and coming out here has been a blessing."
First-year head coach Rich Ellerson said Coulthard's enlisted service and his presence in the program has not been overlooked by the coaching staff or the other players.
"He understands team," Ellerson said. "He has been a great spokesman for the program to outsiders, and a tremendous resource for his teammates who look to him as a model and a source of information."
Ellerson said Coulthard prepares each day as if he is a starter.
"He has been absolutely professional in his ability to stay in the moment and prepare himself and make sure if, and when, his number is called he is ready," Ellerson, who, with a win against Navy, can lead Army into the EagleBank Bowl game Dec. 30, said. "I would expect great things from him in the Army."
Without a word, the men in the vehicle started throwing their weapons out the window.
"They thought they could get rid of their weapons before they went through the check point," Coulthard said. "As they went to pull away, we just flipped on our high beams. They had that 'deer in the headlights' look and were pretty freaked out. They had no idea we were there."
And following Saturday's game, Coulthard's name most likely won't show up on a stat sheet, but that does not mean he wasn't there. Coach Ellerson said Coulthard's presence, and that of the team's senior class, has "changed the internal culture of Army football, helping Army football rediscover what it has always been and what it always should be. This will show up on the scoreboard for years to come."