Out of Dad's Grief, a Tribute

Greg Commons, an Annandale High School teacher, created a license plate to honor fallen service members.
Greg Commons, an Annandale High School teacher, created a license plate to honor fallen service members. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

People who want to remember and honor the men and women killed in war can visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with thousands of names etched on black granite. They can go to the World War II Memorial or the new Air Force Memorial. Or Arlington National Cemetery, where white stones stand in line.

But Gregory Commons, an Annandale High School government teacher, wanted a way for people to pay tribute to soldiers such as his son, Matthew, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2002, as part of their daily routines. So Commons lobbied Virginia lawmakers and helped create a state license plate available only to those who have lost a family member in the military.

The license plate, which will be available in about eight weeks, has the words "Remember the Fallen" across the bottom and the image of a triangular box with the American flag and a service member saluting on the bottom left. On the right there is a gold star, a symbol once placed in windows by families that lost a loved one in combat.

"The monuments are nice, but this is an everyday thing that people can see," Commons said. "It will make people think about the sacrifices their fellow Virginians have made and the sacrifice their families have made."

Cpl. Matthew A. Commons, an Army ranger, was 21 when he was killed March 4, 2002, on a mission to save a Navy SEAL. He was the youngest of seven soldiers who died in a firefight.

Greg Commons is a former Marine. And the slain soldier's grandfather served in World War II. Matthew Commons, who had dropped out of college, enlisted in the Army in July 2000.

"We understand the duty to country," his father said. "If he were given the choice, he would volunteer to be in the Army, he would volunteer to be a Ranger, and he would volunteer to get on that helicopter again."

Commons first thought about the license plate in the summer of 2005 when he came across a newspaper article about a woman in Massachusetts who had lobbied for a "gold star" plate. It seemed like a simple way to honor fallen service members.

He began contacting Virginia lawmakers, and legislation was introduced in the General Assembly. Although most vanity plates in Virginia aren't produced unless 350 people plan to make the purchase, an exception was made for the "Remember the Fallen" plate.

Commons said drivers will spot the plate as he, or others who have lost family members in World War II, Vietnam or Iraq, drive around the Beltway or pull into a parking lot. He imagines them pausing for just a moment to think about those who sacrificed.

"They might come up and ask me, and I'd be proud to say what my son did," Commons said.

A Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman said the license plates will be available to immediate family members of those killed in combat, peacekeeping missions, terrorist attacks or other military operations. Immediate family members include a widow or widower, children, parents and siblings. Family members will have to sign a form indicating they qualify for the plates and must pay a one-time fee of $10.

Before Matthew Commons left for Afghanistan, he went to Carl Sandburg Middle School, where his father taught history, to talk to students. Afterward, he told his father he was thinking of returning to college after his military service and studying to become a teacher.

The last time he spoke to his son, Commons said, was during one of their regular Sunday phone calls.

"The last thing I said to Matt is, 'Matt, I love you' and he said, 'Dad, I love you, too.' I'm a very lucky father in that I got to tell my son I love him, and I got to hear him say that."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company