By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class John Suits
Defense Information School
Matthew Leistikow, a journalism instructor in the Basic Mass Communication Specialist Course at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Md., gives Navy Seaman Apprentice William Andrews, an Atlanta native, after-school training Sept. 22, 2015. Formerly a petty officer first class, Leistikow chose to separate from the Navy to remain a DINFOS instructor instead of continuing his military career, possibly as a chief petty officer.
On July 27, Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew D. Leistikow separated from the Navy, knowing a list of sailors selected for chief petty officer would be released two weeks later and he could very well be on it.
When the list came out and he was selected, Leistikow was still happy with his decision, he said. By then, the gray-haired 36-year-old from Yuma, Arizona, was working as a civilian journalism instructor at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade to teach sailors how to tell the Navy’s story as mass communication specialists, also known as MCs.
The opportunity for Leistikow to be an instructor was worth getting out of the Navy and giving up the chance to don chief anchors, which signify much more than a promotion from E-6 to E-7. In the Navy, a chief is a leader and adviser to enlisted members and officers alike, and someone who can be counted on to get things done.
“I’ve always been a teacher in every facet of my life,” Leistikow said. “I’ve always been the guy in charge of teaching, training and mentoring -- and to finally be paid to do just that is, undeniably, a dream come true.”
Leistikow’s journey to DINFOS began when he took a friend to talk to a recruiter. Having just completed revisions to his first science fiction-fantasy book, he was talking about his book not getting published when a recruiter poked his head out of his office and said, “I’ll publish you.”
After joining the Navy in April 2005 to become a Navy journalist and eventually a mass communication specialist, Leistikow had the intent of writing books, serving for five years and separating. Since then, he’s become an award-winning photographer, and was promoted to petty officer second class within a year of being in the Navy and first class within five years.
“I fell in love with so many aspects of being an MC that it was too much fun,” he said. “When I was in the Navy, everything I did was for the sake of being a better sailor and better MC. I married the Navy for 10 years.”
Working at DINFOS allows him to maintain that relationship, he said.
Leistikow’s tours of duty included Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; the Military Photojournalism Program at Syracuse University in New York, Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific in San Diego and DINFOS.
Once Leistikow arrived at DINFOS in July 2012, he told his senior enlisted adviser the school would be his last stop.
“The only reason I even re-enlisted in the Navy was it allowed me the opportunity to apply for orders to DINFOS,” Leistikow said. “Everything I did in that time was to get here because this job is the essence of who I want to be in life.”
Leistikow’s cubicle reflects a bit of his personality as a former sailor and as a teacher. On the walls are his Navy service medals, a drawing from his niece and photos of his former students who he says are his greatest source of pride.
He says he can point to each student and describe at least one moment when he coached him.
“I hope that I prepared them for this career they’re heading into,” Leistikow said. “I feel confident in saying that I’m one of the most decorated MCs I know. I would happily trade every single one of my ribbons and throw them in the trash for the great work I’ve seen from my students. They’re more valuable to me. It’s a difference that I helped to make. It’s that simple.”
Leistikow’s degree in education and his current stint teaching sailors at DINFOS have given him a better appreciation for passing along his love of teaching and the knowledge he has accumulated over his Navy career, he said.
“Everything I’ve ever been has been about teaching,” he said. “I love teaching, writing and photography. I get to do a thing I love, which is teaching, and I get to teach everything I love to do.”
Leistikow received an outpouring of support from friends and colleagues, a majority of whom were more than understanding of his decision to separate from the Navy.
Some friends congratulated Leistikow on his decision to leave the Navy while others tried to motivate him to stay in.
“Screw you for depriving the Navy of your chiefly awesomeness,” one friend told Leistikow on Facebook.
Leistikow took no offense at that.
“He was alleviating my fear by saying the Navy didn’t lose an anchor when I left,” he said. “Rather, the Navy lost me when I left.”
One sailor, in particular, coached him in his civilian transition by lending an ear to his worries and concerns.
“I’m proud of him regardless of his job status,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Rosa Van der Loo, one of Leistikow’s fellow instructors. “I would be equally proud of him if he stayed in and made chief. What I think about him has nothing to do with what he does for a living.”
Leistikow considers Van der Loo a confidante and someone who kept him centered despite his fear of being unemployed for the first time in his life.
She and Leistikow have a lot in common, Van der Loo said. For instance, they both hate bad grammar.
More important, Leistikow is one of the best people she knows, and she can count on him for anything, she said.
Working at DINFOS as a civilian instructor since June 29 allows Leistikow to invest his time in new directions.
His plans now include writing more books and becoming a better mentor and instructor by completing the DINFOS Master Instructor Program.
He leaves behind the memories of a successful Navy career, 10 years shy of a full retirement with no feelings of guilt.
“It was a huge honor for me to be selected for chief. I was happy to have gotten that news. I loved this Navy. I gave it the best 10 years of my life. I had a career that I loved and I have a career I’m proud of that I would stand behind. That matters more to me than a retirement check.”