Matt Raak (center) is surrounded by his brothers – (from left) Andrew, Joshua, Caleb and Jacob – at the Rock County Fair Aug. 3 in Luverne, Minnesota. This photo was taken the day he returned from deployment to Jordan. 
Matt Raak (center) is surrounded by his brothers – (from left) Andrew, Joshua, Caleb and Jacob – at the Rock County Fair Aug. 3 in Luverne, Minnesota. This photo was taken the day he returned from deployment to Jordan. PHOTO SUBMITTED

JASPER, Minn. – Serving in our nation’s armed forces can be a life-changing experience. Few people know this better than Matt Raak.
Matt and his parents, Philip and Theresa, milk 450 cows on their farm near Jasper. Matt is the eldest of five brothers, which includes Andrew, Joshua, Jacob and Caleb.
Matt joined the South Dakota Air National Guard in the fall of 2016, a few months after graduating from Ridgewater College, of Willmar, with a degree in dairy management. The SDANG 114th Fighter Wing is headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“I was sent to San Antonio, Texas, for basic training,” Matt said. “After that I attended maintenance school in Port Hueneme, California. I’ve always liked working with machinery and doing repairs.”
Matt was continuing a family tradition when he joined the military. Philip served in the Coast Guard, Matt’s maternal grandfather served in Vietnam, and his maternal great-grandfather served in the Korean conflict. Matt also has a first cousin who is serving in the Army National Guard.
Following his advanced training, Matt was assigned to the 114th Fighter Wing’s Vehicle Mechanics unit. On Jan. 5, Matt was deployed to Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan.
“I was 100 percent behind him when he joined,” Philip said. “I knew that serving would enable him to see new places and meet new people. We are proud of him, but it was still a kick in the gut when he left.”

Before Matt left, he was promoted to staff sergeant.
“I was responsible for managing people along with performing vehicle repairs,” Matt said. “While in Jordan, I mostly worked on pay loaders and skid loaders. It all felt pretty familiar.”
The climate and the landscape in Jordan stood out in stark contrast to southwestern Minnesota.
“The weather there was exactly the same every day: no clouds, the sun blasting down and a high of 105,” Matt said. “There was always a light breeze, but it dried you right out; you had to drink water nonstop. The temperature would drop to 85 at night, which felt cool enough to wear a jacket. It rained once during the seven months I was there, just a few hundredths of an inch.”
His agricultural background made Matt a keen observer of local farming practices.
“The soil over there is a dry, dusty clay,” Matt said. “The dust would get into everything. When I went out into the country, I might see a guy riding a donkey and herding 20 goats. I knew that those goats were his living and everything he owned was on the back of that donkey. It made me appreciate everything we have here.”
Matt worked in the base’s maintenance shop from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week.
“Our shop wasn’t air conditioned, but we had lots of fans,” Matt said. “I felt sorry for the guys who had to work on the flight line all day. It was so hot out there that the asphalt would get soft. At the end of the days when I had walked across the flight line, I would have to scrape asphalt off the soles of my boots.”
You can take a boy off the farm, but you cannot get the farm out of the boy. This was true for Matt, who was somewhat of an ambassador for agriculture.
“None of the guys in my unit knew anything about farming,” Matt said. “They didn’t believe me when I told them how we sometimes have to reach inside of a cow when we’re helping her give birth. It blew their minds.”
During his time in Jordan, Matt was able to get in a little sightseeing.
“I went to the Jordan River and saw the spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus,” Matt said. “I climbed Mount Nebo, where they think Moses is buried. I looked out from the mountaintop and could see the biblical promised land and the city of Jericho. During another outing, I visited the Dead Sea. The water is so salty that you begin to float when you get waist deep. Every little nick and crack in my skin stung because of the water’s high salt content.”
At one point, Matt volunteered to help with K9 training.
“I put on a heavily cushioned suit and a helmet and pretended that I was running away or resisting arrest and the dogs would pull me down,” Matt said. “Even though the padding was really thick, I could feel the tremendous pressure of the dog’s bite.”
One of the biggest and most arduous projects Matt tackled involved replacing an engine on a John Deere bulldozer.
“It took five months from the day the operator ran the engine out of oil until I got the bulldozer running again,” Matt said. “I would go online to look up parts, but sometimes there were two part numbers listed. There’s an eight-hour time difference between Jordan and Minnesota, so I would stay up late and call the parts man at our John Deere dealership in Edgerton. We finally got it figured out, but requisitioning and shipping the parts took a lot of extra time.”
 The food that was served on the base was flown in from the U.S.
“We couldn’t have beef or pork due to local religious considerations,” Matt said. “We ate a lot of fish and chicken. Powdered milk was available, but I thought it tasted like calf milk replacer. I got my dairy fix by eating a Nestle ice cream drumstick every day. The food was good, all things considered.”
Matt stayed in touch with family and friends through Snapchat. He was also able to watch via the internet when his brothers played in their high school basketball games. A competitive basketball player himself, Matt would call his brothers to congratulate them and give them pointers.
Matt returned home from his deployment Aug. 3.
“He got back just in time for the last day of the Rock County Fair,” Theresa said. “When he arrived at the fairgrounds, the announcer said that we had a special visitor and played, ‘God Bless the U.S.A.,’ over the PA system. All of the livestock barns emptied out as people rushed to welcome Matt home. There wasn’t a dry eye on the fairgrounds that day. We’re proud that he joined and are glad that he’s home.”
Matt had a number of memorable experiences during his time overseas.
“I met people from a wide variety of backgrounds,” he said. “I encountered a lot of different attitudes toward life and toward work. I also made some very good friends.”
Matt missed his family and his friends during his sojourn in Jordan. But, that was not all.
“I missed being my own boss and doing what I wanted when I wanted,” he said. “I missed the sound of rain, and the way things smell after it rains. I missed our black soil. I missed the animals, especially my pet cows. … Being over there gave me a greater appreciation for everything that we have. It made me realize how thankful I am for my family and for the life that we have on our dairy farm.”