From Baylor to U.S. Space Force surgeon general (and back again)
Few university professors anywhere in the world have a resume quite like Dr. Walter “Sparky” Matthews (BA ’92) — a former Air Force flight surgeon, hospital commander on the warfront in Afghanistan, winner of military honors ranging from the Bronze Star to the John M. Collins Military Strategy Award for Excellence in Writing, and the first surgeon general of the United States Space Force.
Now a clinical professor in Baylor’s Honors Program, Matthews says he never could have envisioned such a career path — and that it all began with a few words from a legendary Baylor professor.
“Growing up, I never remember wanting to be anything but a doctor, and the military never even occurred to me,” Matthews remembers. “But the greatest mentor I ever had, Dr. Bill Hillis [BS ’53, the longtime Cornelia Marschall Smith Distinguished Professor of Biology], announced an Air Force medical recruiter was on campus. After class, he grabbed me by the shoulder and said he thought it would be a great fit. That was good enough for me. Twenty-eight years later, I am amazed at the course he set me on and the influence he had on my life.”
That course led Matthews around the world for more than two decades, as he rose to the rank of Air Force colonel, with stints in places like Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan. As a flight surgeon, he helped bridge the gap between medicine and fighting, flying combat missions with the men and women of the Air Force that he served.
As a flight surgeon, Matthews treated aviators and prepared them to excel in conditions the human body is not generally accustomed to navigating: high altitude, low oxygen, low pressure, extreme temperatures, increased noise and vibration, and more. He also treated the injuries they would sustain, serving in theater hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan. On deployment in Afghanistan from 2017-18, he was the commander of the Craig Joint Theater Hospital, providing the highest level of care available in Afghanistan to those deployed.
His breadth of service drew the attention of leaders within his branch of service, and in Washington, as well.
In 2019, Matthews was named as the first surgeon general of the U.S. Space Force, a newly formed branch of the Armed Forces to protect the U.S. in space. Matthews says the Space Force’s relationship to the Air Force is much like the relationship between the Marine Corps and the Navy — its own branch of service, but within the other’s department. Starting 100 miles up off the Earth’s surface, everything in the universe beyond the realm of the Army, Navy and Air Force — from satellites to U.S. efforts on Mars — is under the Space Force’s command. In that role, Matthews studied space medicine and began addressing a long-standing project to increase understanding of medical practice in space.
Last year, he retired from the Air Force and Space Force to return to his alma mater and take on a challenge he’d dreamed of for years: teaching Baylor students.
“I’m an accidental academic, but from before I graduated from Baylor, I somehow felt it was my destiny to come back and teach,” Matthews says. “It’s an honor to be able to teach students to become physicians of honor and character, and I want to be Bill Hills for a new generation of physicians.”
Sic ’em, Dr. Matthews!