It was a surreal experience for Lt. Col. Matthew Tillman when he walked into the Military Science Building for the first time in 16 years since he was a student at Colorado State University.

For Tillman, CSU holds a special place in his heart. It’s where he met his wife; it’s where he earned his degree; and it’s where he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army.

After 16-plus years of active-duty roles, Tillman is back at his alma mater, excited to shape the next generation of leaders as the professor of military science and the department head of Army ROTC at CSU.

“I won’t lie. Getting to come back to my college campus is amazing,” said Tillman who took on the new role in August.

Tillman, who graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management, is now in charge of overseeing the ROTC program and leading approximately 140 cadets.

His theme for leading his cadets this fall samples his strong connection to CSU: “I’m Proud to Be a CSU Ram.”

“Whenever I talk to them, I want to start that chant,” he said. “I want to continue to be proud of the lieutenants we make out of Colorado State University’s ROTC program because it’s my university’s reputation, and these are America’s sons and daughters who are getting ready to lead.”

Becoming a leader

Matt Tillman shares a moment with his wife and fellow CSU graduate Chelsea near the Lagoon after his commissioning ceremony in 2004. The Tillmans recreated the scene with their return to Fort Collins.

In his senior year at CSU, Tillman asked Peter Bleich, the enrollment and scholarship officer of CSU’s ROTC program, to commission him as an officer in the U.S. Army.

Bleich “was the leader I wanted to be,” Tillman said. “He had high expectations from the cadets and the program but was kind. He had the presence of an Army officer. He carried himself with confidence grounded in proficiency — and simply, he was part of the program.”

Tillman used that leadership style throughout his Army career, from overseeing a 72-soldier medical company in Afghanistan to commanding a guard force in Iraq.

The pinnacle of Tillman’s active-duty career involved taking pieces and parts of two Army hospitals and constructing a 250-bed field hospital in Seattle in two weeks to help support medical workers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To be able to see that side of our Army and our ability to prepare and be ready to support on the homeland is pretty neat,” said Tillman, who also holds a master’s degree from Baylor University. “It really doesn’t get much better than that.”

Bleich, who started working at CSU during Tillman’s senior year, said many of the attributes that made Tillman a successful cadet can be seen in him today. He lauded Tillman’s commitment to supporting the program and just how much he cares about the cadets.

“The pride and enthusiasm have been there right from the day he walked back in the door,” Bleich said. “His pride in the university and his pride in this program is something he really wants the seniors and all the cadets to have.”

Excited for the future

In addition to leading the program, Tillman also serves as the professor of military science for CSU’s Army ROTC program. He is working to build stronger connections between the program and the university.

Since being back in Fort Collins, Tillman has been by a few of his old stomping grounds as a student such as Edwards Hall, where he first met his wife, Chelsea, who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts.

“To come back to the first place we were really adults has been pretty cool,” he said. “I think about how I used to walk from Edwards to class, and how cool it is now to have a stadium on campus.”

While coming back to campus has released a flood of memories for Tillman, he said he’s focused on the future of the ROTC program.

A major focus for Tillman involves university research. He said ROTC is helping Computer Information Science with virtual reality testing for the Navy. The ROTC program is also part of a pioneering study with the Department of Health and Exercise Science that examines the most effective training plans for the new Army Combat Fitness Test.

Most importantly, Tillman said he is committed to producing high-performing officers for the Army. In the face of COVID-19, he said he wants the cadets to be campus leaders.

“We challenged our cadets at the beginning of the semester that we are some of the standard-bearers on this campus,” Tillman said. “And I have just been impressed with how compliant (with public health guidance) they have been. They are truly committed to the safety of the community.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, Tillman said he hopes to take advantage of a few of the attractions he and his wife enjoyed as students, including visiting the breweries and attending football games.

While those things will have to wait, Tillman can still hear that chant “I’m Proud to Be a CSU Ram” in his head.

“I really am proud of this university,” he said, “and I think we’re doing a lot of great things.”