To Hell…and Back


Combat veteran and entrepreneur Matt Bacik returns from Iraq and Afghanistan with a new understanding.

by Jesse Chambers, Photo by Edward Badham

 

“War is hell,” said Union general William Tecumseh Sherman.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Matt Bacik — former U.S. Army officer, veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a Pelham business owner. “In war, tragic things happen on both sides,” he says. “It’s all bad.”

Bacik received shrapnel wounds on two occasions, minor compared to the wound he would suffer in Iraq on his third and final tour of combat duty.

Bacik should know. He served three tours of duty as a first lieutenant, the first in Fallujah, Iraq, with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne, the second in Afghanistan with a Ranger regiment, and a third tour in Iraq, also with the Rangers.

And he suffered a horrible injury, which would lead to him losing part of a leg, in 2005, only two weeks into his third tour.

However, Bacik moved on, earning an MBA at Auburn University in 2007 and starting a successful military consulting business with a nearly global reach, the Bacik Group.

And the Ohio native has drawn important lessons from his war-fighting experience. He takes pride in the work he and his fellow soldiers did. He came to appreciate the qualities of a good leader. He deepened his affinity for the people and culture of the Middle East, which serves him well in his business. And he marvels at the tremendous capacity of the human spirit, even in terrible circumstances.

The Bacik Group offers what it calls “force sustainment services,” consulting with the military and other contractors on how to manage the operation of bases and other facilities and work with local suppliers, both in the U.S. and overseas. The company also provides IT, training, engineering and risk-assessment services. The company has done work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Dubai and the Philippines.

“We do anything dealing with running or managing a facility,” Bacik tells me as we sit in his office at company headquarters in Pelham, adding, “We can manage a base’s utilities or plan for future growth, or for troops coming in or out.”

It all began with Bacik’s combat experience, especially his first tour in Iraq in 2003. “When we were in Fallujah, I saw most of my combat,” he says. “It was the center of the resistance.”

Bacik’s unit was charged with preventing enemy combatants—including locals, regional “hired guns” paid to fight Americans and other foreign fighters—from causing chaos through attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, officials and infrastructure.

“It was very challenging,” Bacik says. “I spent a lot of time training. That was my craft, and myself and the other people I worked with were dedicated to improving our craft.”

The work in Fallujah was dangerous. “We spilled a lot of our own blood,” Bacik says. He suffered shrapnel wounds twice, and one of his friends, Staff Sergeant Paul J. “P.J.” Johnson, was killed.

Still, Bacik is proud of what the Army accomplished. “We got a lot of bad guys off the streets,” he says, adding, “That deployment [in Fallujah] was the formational event of my life. If you look at the results we achieved in that short time, we were very effective, and we were very, very cautious to limit the amount of combat power we applied to only what was absolutely essential.”

According to Bacik, the Army worked closely with local tribal and political leaders and tried to be sensitive to the way military operations affected local commerce.  “We had a great affinity for the people of the city, [and] we felt we were not at war with the people in Fallujah, and we tried to operate that way in everything we did,” he says.

Because of his academic background, Bacik was predisposed to be sensitive to the Iraqis. “I studied Middle East culture in school and going into it already had a level of respect and an affinity for the culture,” he says. “It was a very natural thing for me, and I guess that translates to what we’re doing now.”

Matt Bacik with his wife, Deborah, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, D.C., one of several hospitals where Bacik was treated after his career-ending injury in Iraq in 2005.

Bacik is proud of the way he and his associates work with vendors overseas. “Something that is very important to the company and makes us unique is that we carry that level of respect for local culture that so many people developed in their combat experiences,” he says. “We try to make friends, not enemies, and try to figure out how [our work] fits in the big picture.”

It was only two weeks into Bacik’s third tour of duty when his life would change. He was riding on the passenger side of an armored Humvee as part of a U.S. convoy on its way to kill or capture a “high-value” enemy target when an improvised explosive device (IED) was remotely detonated underneath his vehicle.

“It was a huge explosion,” Bacik says, which, as he puts it, “crucified me to the Humvee. I could not move. I could feel my legs, but I could not move them.”

The vehicle’s armored door was blown away, and Bacik’s M-4 rifle split in two, leaving him defenseless against the ambush he expected, the kind that usually followed IED attacks that disabled vehicles in a “kill zone.”

“I thought, ‘This is it. They’re going to open up with that ambush,’” Bacik says. “It’s weird. I kind of had a feeling of acceptance, you know. Not necessarily despair, more like acceptance.”

But the attack never came, and Bacik and his driver—who suffered light shrapnel wounds—were choppered to a Baghdad military hospital.

Bacik’s heel was blown off. He was told by a surgeon that he was probably going to lose his leg and that his days in war zones were likely over.

“When the guy told me I was done, I didn’t have a problem with it,” Bacik says. “I was satisfied with what I had done in my active duty time. I had been hit three times. I felt I had tangoed with the enemy enough.” But, he adds, “Now I had to recover, and the recovery was a challenge. It was tough.”

Bacik had a couple of surgeries in Baghdad, was sent to Germany for a week, and then was flown stateside to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he spent a month and a half before being moved to Ft. Benning military hospital, where he would spend another six months.

Bacik was told by more surgeons that he would probably lose his foot or leg. He was also anxious to get the amputation over with, especially after seeing other wounded soldiers in the hospital who had been fitted with prosthetic limbs. “I was ready every day to have it cut off,” he says. “It was horrible.” But his doctors delayed the procedure, in part because they wanted to make every effort to save his heel.

Finally, the amputation was performed, and Bacik could begin the next stage of his recovery. “I was walking in a prosthetic leg within three weeks of surgery, then running within a month,” he says. “It was a fabulous outcome.”

Bacik retired as a captain, having been promoted after his injury. He began working on his MBA at Auburn, where his wife, Deborah, was working on a PhD in chemical engineering.

He credits Deborah with helping him get well, especially since Bacik needed a couple more minor surgeries while trying to finish school. “As much as I would like to say, ‘I did it all on my own,’ at the end of the day, [she] wouldn’t let me quit,” Bacik says. “She was willing to do whatever it took to support me through it. Without that, I don’t know where I’d be.”

The veteran also credits his V.A. caseworkers, especially Tonetta Flenoy, now retired, with helping him navigate the military medical system and get the care he needed. “I would have been screwed without her,” he says.

And there were emotional challenges. “I was fresh off the battlefield,” he says. “There’s a lot of issues that come with that, whether you got your leg blown off or not.”

He adds, “Coming from the battlefield back to a regular life style is challenging.  Regardless of an individual’s job overseas, all soldiers are exposed to the stresses of combat. You have to become resistant to those stresses in order to accomplish your mission. When those stresses are gone, it’s hard to turn off the resilient mindset.”

Bacik, who attends an Episcopalian church, also says his “strong faith background” helped him through the ordeal. “I never prayed to ask for anything, but I definitely prayed for strength to deal with whatever it was that was coming,” he says.

After finishing his MBA, Bacik—a 2002 West Point graduate who studied economics and nuclear engineering—went to work for Merchant Capital, a Montgomery investment bank, where he learned a lot about business from company chairman Thomas Harris.

He also saw a chance to build his own business based on his military experience.  “I thought I could apply what I was good at in a business offering, so I decided to start the company,” Bacik says.

His military experience also influences his company’s operation. “The culture of the business is very similar to how my platoon ran in Fallujah,” Bacik says.

His time in combat also helped teach him the qualities of a good leader. “A leader has to have some type of vision and to communicate that to the people they work with,” he says. “A good leader has to have true, heartfelt devotion for the people he or she is leading. [And a leader] must be tactically proficient in whatever craft they’re involved in.” He adds, “If you can apply these three things, I think you can very successful at anything.”

Despite his injury, Bacik has no regrets about serving his country. “I knew what I was doing, and I knew what the potential consequences were, but I believed in it,” he says. “I thought the risk was worth it.”

The veteran displays a surprising lack of bitterness toward the enemy. “If I ever meet the guy who took my foot, I hope he’s doing well,” Bacik says. “I have no ill feelings toward him if he’s retired and moved on. Now, if he’s still with al Qaeda, that’s a different story.”

Bacik also learned a key life lesson while in combat. “I learned that the human spirit can do amazing things and deal with amazing challenges and display amazing courage under the most dreadful circumstances, and I think it’s something that everyone has inside of them,” he says.

And some of the people who do brave things don’t get medals, according to Bacik, who earned a Bronze Star. “You don’t always see the one-on-one challenges and valorous things that people will accomplish,” he says.

He describes the medics he saw follow an advancing U.S. force in a firefight and risk their own lives to care for wounded enemy combatants. “For me, that’s the right thing to do,” he says. “You see people make the choice to do the right thing at the risk of their life, and it’s just a testament to the character of people.”

Bacik and Deborah have two daughters, Sophia, age 5, and Madeleine, age 4.

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3 Responses to “To Hell…and Back”

  1. Tom Gordon says:

    Fine, fine story, Jesse.

  2. Jim Chambers says:

    Jesse,
    Great story. Keep them coming.

  3. John M. says:

    Jesse,
    Matt and I were classmates and teammates (football) in high school. Your article does great justice to an incredibly brave man who went beyond the call of duty to preserve the freedoms that we too-often take for granted in this country.
    Thank you for sharing his story with the world.
    God Bless Matt and the Bacik family.
    G.A. ’97

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