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A Fight Against Forgetting

Five years after his son’s death, a teacher goes to Richmond to honor families’ wartime loss.

Matt Commons graduated from Colorado’s Boulder City High School in 1999. He was eager to enlist. His great-grandfather had been a Navy seaman in World War I. His grandfather had served as a Marine in the Pacific in World War II.

But Commons’ father, Greg, who had guarded embassies in Eastern European as a Marine during the Cold War, encouraged him to go to college first so he could become an officer. Commons followed his advice, somewhat. As his father put it, “he sort of perfected his snow boarding skills his first year of college instead of his academic skill.”

After being academically suspended, Matt Commons called his father, who is a history teacher living near the George Washington Parkway in Mount Vernon, and asked if he could leave Colorado, where he had grown up with his mother and younger brother, and live with him in Virginia. Greg Commons said sure, but warned him he would be on the 1960 plan. “You’re 19 years old you’ve got 60 days to get a job.”

Matt called back a few days later, Greg Commons recalled. “He said, ‘Well I’ve got a job. I enlisted in the Army.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s a job.”

“I didn’t have a problem,” Commons added. “This was June of 2000.”

Matt Commons passed through basic training, then the elite and grueling Ranger School. He was assigned to 1st Ranger Battalion, based in Savannah, Ga. Greg Commons would make the seven or eight-hour drive every few months. After terrorists based out of Afghanistan flew passenger airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Commons arranged a visit with his son. They spent the weekend of Oct. 5, 2001 in a hotel, playing golf. “We talked about the possibility he would go overseas,” Commons said. “I told him, ‘Do your job. Keep your head down you know, but do your job. And depend on your buddies.”

When war in Afghanistan became a certainty and the 1st Rangers were issued their deployment orders, Matt Commons was given 20 days of leave in December 2001. He spent some of those days with his father, who was teaching at Carl Sandburg Middle School. One day, father and son came to school together. Matt Commons wore his camouflage fatigues. He and his father had a conversation with then-principal Donna Pasteur, then Matt spoke to his father’s students. He described the missions of a Quick Reaction Force, like low-altitude parachute drops. His students were enthralled, Greg Commons recalled. They quizzed Matt on his training and his weapons. At the end of class, the two men walked out into the parking lot.

“That was really cool,” Matt Commons told his father, who replied, “Yeah, you did a great job.”

“I thought about staying in the Army,” Matt Commons said. “But I think after I get out I’m going to go back to college and become a history teacher.”

FROM OVERSEAS, Matt Commons would call his father every Sunday. He could not say where he was, but he would talk about the cold. He asked for warm socks. His father made a trip to REI and bought half a dozen pairs. He was told to send packages to his son double-wrapped. The first layer was addressed to Matt’s base in Georgia. The second had no address. The Army took care of it.

Over the phone, Commons heard his son change. “He was learning how to be a young man. In a lot of ways at age 20-21 he was still a kid at heart, like we all are. You think you’re so old… the reality is that you’re not.”

“He never said it, but I think he realized that what he was doing, there was a price, a price to your naiveté. [In one of his last phone calls,] he was much more serious. He had probably seen some of the conditions that the Afghan people lived under. [He said] ‘Dad you just wouldn’t believe it.’ I could tell in his voice there were things he was seeing and hearing about that were making him grow up.”

There was no phone call on Sunday, March 3, 2002. That evening Greg Commons watched television in the den, then went to bed. He had to be up at six to go to school. At one in the morning he awoke from what he thought was a nightmare.

He had been on a military helicopter, dressed in an everyday shirt and blue jeans and holding the M-16 rifle he had trained with as a Marine. The soldiers that crowded beside him in the belly of the helicopter were wearing the desert fatigues that were standard issue in Afghanistan. His son was among them. When the helicopter was hit by a round of heavy ammunition then smashed into the side of a mountain, Greg Commons, his son and the other soldiers fell to the floor in the graceful physics of the dream. The soldiers arose and deployed from the back of the helicopter, taking fire. The father and his son ran together from the dark belly down the ramp into the high-altitude light of the mountainside. Each was firing his weapon.

“There was a momentary lull,” Greg Commons said. “I looked at him and he looked at me and had this, ‘I don’t know Dad,’ this look of doubt, and I smiled at him and in my mind said it’s going to be all right. Peace came over his facial expression. The doubt disappeared. And then he got hit.”

THE DOORBELL RANG late the next night. An Army Captain told Greg Commons that his 21-year-old son had been killed on the 10,469-foot peak of Takur Ghar, a mountain overlooking a strategic valley in southern Afghanistan. Matt Commons’ platoon had been sent to rescue a fallen Navy SEAL. Their helicopter had been hit and forced to crash land. As Commons rushed from the belly of the helicopter, he was hit in the forehead by a rifle round. He died four hours before his father’s dream.

Greg Commons called his ex-wife Patricia Marek, who had just moved to Alexandria, and told her to come over. Then he called his son Aaron, Greg’s younger brother, a college freshman in Colorado. “That was one of the more difficult things to do, to tell him that his brother had been killed.” Over the phone, Aaron cried and screamed. His father gave him his credit card number and told him to book a plane ticket to Virginia. Then he called Father Ronald Escalante, then parochial vicar at Good Shepherd Catholic Church. When his ex-wife arrived, Commons and his wife Linda met her outside. The three stayed up all night, talking about Matt.

Five years later, Aaron Commons is getting a graduate degree from Virginia Tech. Marek is back in Colorado, but still close with her ex-husband and his family. While Greg and Linda Commons’ older son, Patrick, has strong memories of his half-brother, their younger son Thomas, 13, is still learning to cope with the loss of a brother he barely remembers.

Wherever he goes, Greg Commons, now a teacher at Annandale High School, wears a gold star, signifying a family member lost in war. “Families are devastated by this loss,” he said. “I know we were. And people tend to forget. People ask me why I wear this gold star, [and] I can see people who look at it and don’t ask.”

“People were forgetting the fact of the sacrifice, not only that Matt made, but what we as a family have to live with.”

On Tuesday, Commons celebrated a small victory in the fight against forgetting. In 2005, he’d read about a woman in Massachusetts who successfully lobbied for a gold star license plate, to be issued to anyone who lost an immediate family member in war. He contacted his state representatives, Del. Kristen Amundson (D-44) and Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36), and asked them to introduce legislation for a similar plate in Virginia. The bill passed in 2006, and the DMV called Commons for help designing the license plate.

He requested two motifs: a gold star on the side, and a triangular flag box – given to families after the ceremonial folding of the coffin flag at a military funeral, superimposed with a soldier saluting, a design Commons borrowed from a California group called “Honor the Fallen.”

Tuesday, in Richmond, on the floors of both the House and Senate chambers, Commons was presented with a gold star license plate mounted on a plaque: it reads MATT. It is dated March, 2002.

TOM HARVEY, who owns Hollin Hall Service Station, is a friend of Greg Commons. His oldest brother Butch died in Vietnam in 1970. The Marine reconnaissance officer was in a helicopter trying to rescue a five-man patrol that had been surrounded. Under enemy fire, they tried three times to pull the men from the jungle canopy. The third attempt worked. The helicopter rose above the jungle with the last man still clinging to the rescue ladder. But as it sped off in bad weather, the helicopter crashed into a mountainside.

Harvey said he planned to surprise his mother with a gold star plate as soon as it became available. “It’s been 37 years and it is still a very emotional, raw wound for her. She talks about it very often.”

But her son’s sacrifice is also “an incredible source of pride.” When Butch Harvey’s body came home, Tom Harvey said the county’s soured attitude toward the military discouraged any expressions of pride in his sacrifice. “You spend 30 seconds with Greg and you can tell the pride he had in his son, and the same with my mother,” Harvey said. “It would educate the public as to what that means, it just gets them thinking.”

The license plate will “serve as a reminder to the rest of us,” said Joe Burkhardt, a retired Ranger who became a close friend of the Commons family after serving as a liaison officer in the days after Matt Commons’ death. “When somebody dies, it’s a number you see on the news. But that is somebody’s son or daughter … the war is personal.”

“The number itself is an impersonal thing. When you tie that number to a name or a family… it’s no longer just a number.”

Burkhardt invited the Commons family to his wedding one year ago. Nine people at that ceremony are now in Iraq. “For many of us, it’s personal.”

In a few weeks, the Burkardts will meet the Marek and Commons families at Arlington Cemetery. It will be the fifth time. “I’m a lucky guy,” said Greg Commons. “I got to tell him I loved him [in a phone conversation on Feb. 25, 2002,] and the last thing he said to me was, ‘Dad I love you too.’ And I don’t have to wake up in the morning wondering why my son’s dead. He died trying to save somebody's life. I have three more wonderful boys to raise.”