Episode 36

Matthew's Story & Military Service During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Joining Petra today is a Finnish-American named Matti who moved from New Jersey to the US in 2019 to complete his conscription service.

Matti received Finnish citizenship through descent when he was a child. He was eligible because his paternal grandmother had moved to New Jersey in the 1950s without becoming an American citizen. It is important to note that, due to immigration reform in the early aughts, this opportunity is no longer available.

The first time Matti visited Finland was in 2017 when he came from Brussels to celebrate the country’s centennial. He enjoyed his visit to Finland, and he was eager to explore the country more.

After finishing university in the United States, he saved up some money and moved to Finland to begin his military service. Before beginning his service, Matti spent six months in Finland completing paperwork and getting acclimated. He needed some time to practice the language, as his family had not spoken Finnish regularly when he was growing up.

“I came to Finland pretty much only knowing how to count and curse,” he admitted.

Matti began his conscription in the first urban infrantry company not knowing what to expect. He recalls that, when he showed up on the first day with long hair, officers ordered him to chop it off himself.

“I was expecting, like in every military movie you see, to get a free haircut,” he said. “For the next two or three days, I was scrambling and looking for clippers. Only, I didn’t know the word for clippers!”

During the introductory basic bootcamp training, Matti scored pretty well on the running and shooting tasks. As a result, they sent him to the NCO leadership school, where he was one of few foreigners. After four months in leadership training, Matti earned the rank of a non-commissioned officer and became a squad leader. Matti spent six months in this role, training the next cohort of transcripts.He finished his service in June of 2020 after about one year of service.

Matti was in the middle of his service when the coronavirus crisis began. He recalls that his unit was supposed to have the weekend off. When they initially heard about the virus, they worried that their usual weekend leave might be called off.

“We were all really concerned with the weekend in front of us,” he recalled. “We weren’t really thinking about the long-term consequences.”

They were held on the base on Friday and divided into three cohorts which rotated service duties throughout the pandemic. Instead of two days off, each cohort had two weeks to stay home. The trade-off was that each cohort then had to spend four weeks on-base.

“It made it a little bit more manageable, and it was kinda nice to have that big chunk of time off.”

Overall, Matti believes the Finnish military handled the unexpected situation well. He only heard of one case of coronavirus during his time in the military; to Matti’s surprise, the illness did not end up spreading on the base. “You’re living in rooms of about 10-12 people all stacked on bunk beds,” he said. “If one person gets it, you’d think a lot of people are gonna get it.”

Matti had a scare when one of the conscripts in his room began showing symptoms of COVID-19. The entire room had to quarantine for 48 hours, but the test results luckly came back negative.

Matti reflected on the ways in which his time in Finland changed him. Although he retained characteristics that made him unique, like his American sense of individualism, he did pick up some Finnish habits. For example, Matti is not likely to J-walk in Finland for fear of endangering children who might see his behavior and endanger themselves by emulating him.

“In New Jersey, J-walking is a way of life,” he explained. “It’s not something you think twice about. Here, it’s considered one of the gravest crimes you could commit.” 

To hear more about Matti’s time in the army, give episode 36 a listen. Be sure to check out the links section below for more information about the Finnish military. Tune in next week to hear more about Matti’s life in Finland, and for a sneak peek at his recent book!


Finnish Defence Forces Conscription Information

Training and Career Opportunities in the Finnish Defence Forces

Coronavirus FAQ For Finnish Defence Forces