Matthew Bunker knew he wanted to join the military from an early age. When his father, Joe Bunker, a veteran and commercial pilot, was tasked with running an Air Force recruiting booth at the Experimental Aircraft Association, he took his son along with him to the event in Oshkosh, Wisc.
Matthew wasn’t interested in airplanes, said Joe Bunker, but while exploring the space as his dad worked, the boy stumbled upon the Wisconsin National Guard recruiting booth. “Dad, Dad, I gotta show you something!” Joe Bunker recalled his son saying.
It was one day before Matthew Bunker’s eighth birthday.
As a boy, Matthew Bunker “was into the woods, the outdoors and the army,” his father said. As an adult, he would go on to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, serve in the army and become an accomplished outdoorsman.
Bunker’s military service took him to the Pacific Northwest, and the Seattle resident who had grown up emulating renowned explorers Roald Amundsen, David Livingstone and John Fremont spent much of his free time exploring the outdoors. Bunker died last month while skiing on Mount Rainier. He was 28.
Bunker left the Army as a captain in 2018 after fulfilling his five-year service obligation because he wanted to “pursue a lifelong dream of being an explorer,” he wrote on his photography website.
And he did. He scaled mountains throughout the Pacific Northwest, went trail running and mountain biking, and often captured his outdoor adventures — and the friends who came with him — in sensitively crafted, beautifully framed photographs.
It was while descending Thumb Rock along Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge route, at about 10,400 feet in elevation, that Matthew Bunker went missing on Friday, June 26. On Monday, June 29, the National Park Service (NPS) confirmed that Bunker’s body had been found in a crevasse at the base of Liberty Ridge.
His family got the news when they were headed to their cabin, a place that was dear to Matthew, who grew up in Delavan, Wisc. Along with his father, Joe Bunker, he is survived by his mother, Carolyn Bunker; two sisters, Catherine and Callie; and a close-knit community of family and friends.
According to Joe Bunker, Matthew prized only two things above the outdoors: “He loved his family more and he loved God more.”
Joe Bunker said he and Carolyn Bunker worked hard to instill Christian values in their children, but that he was only now learning of some of the ways Matthew had epitomized those teachings.
Bunker said that in recent days, he had heard new stories about his son’s generosity and strong moral compass. “We’ve learned rather quietly that Matthew just sent a very generous check to the endowment fund of Delavan Christian School,” where he and his sisters had attended, for students who could not afford tuition.
When Matthew found out that a college friend of his sister’s was struggling to pay her tuition, said Joe Bunker, he wrote the student a check.
When, after his sister’s wedding, an acquaintance Matthew Bunker was driving to the airport entered the car with a coffee cup taken from an Airbnb rental, Bunker refused to start the car until it was returned.
“We had no idea,” his father said. “We had no idea he was being that bold in his Christian walk.”
Throughout Bunker’s time at West Point and in the Northwest, he kept in touch with his family. His father said Bunker would often call his parents on weekend evenings as he was driving home from whatever mountain he’d been climbing that day.
And he loved to climb. When his military service brought him to the Northwest, he described the transition as a joyful one: “I finally had the opportunity to realize my childhood dream of exploring the mountains,” wrote Bunker on his website. “My love for the Cascades and the wet rainy winters grew fast. Over the next four years nearly every weekend that wasn’t occupied on training missions I was in the woods.”
A celebration of Bunker’s life was held in his hometown in person and via live stream on July 7 at Delavan Christian Reformed Church. Bunker’s sister, Catherine Machen, spoke during the service.
“There was so much about Matthew that I wanted to share with everyone I knew,” Machen said. “Matthew is strong, athletic, handsome, he’s smart, he went to West Point, he’s disciplined, he’s a talented photographer and painter, he’s a gifted writer. He had the goofiest sense of humor and could always bring a smile to your face. He loved the Lord. Matthew was one of a kind.”
Machen read from a letter Matthew had sent to a friend of theirs:
“Lately, the theme of waiting and trusting in God has been occurring often in my life,” he had written. “I’m not the biggest fan of waiting or uncertainty (not that anyone is) but I’m trying to become more patient. To entirely trust God, not just while crossing the valley of death, but in the feasts and on the mountaintops as well. To not rush through life, to enjoy it, but not waste it or squander it.”
A second celebration of life for Bunker’s loved ones in Washington state is expected to be held later this summer. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorial donations be made in Bunker’s name to Delavan Christian School.