A Father, a Son, a Life's Lesson
Saturday, March 3, 2007
Annandale High School government teacher Greg Commons did not try to hide his tears as he stood before his students. His pain was part of the lesson.
As photos of his son Matthew flashed on a screen, Commons explained each one. There was Matt sitting on the roof of a Humvee. There were the Army Ranger buddies posing in dark sunglasses, a photo that earned them the nickname the "shade squad." Later, a grainy black-and-white video taken by a Predator drone above eastern Afghanistan in March 2002.
"You're going to see Matt and Brad get killed as they come off the helicopter," Commons said. Then came the blurry image of two soldiers shot down as they stepped off a Chinook, their bodies falling into the snow.
As he has each year around the anniversary of his son's death, Commons set aside one period in each of his classes yesterday and Thursday to talk about his son, civic duty and a battle that killed seven soldiers. Matt is honored by a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, and Commons has lobbied Virginia lawmakers to create a new license plate in memory of fallen soldiers. But the most powerful tribute from father to son has come through teaching.
For 90 minutes on each of the two days, the students in Commons's class stepped away from their review of the legislative branch and government spending to get a glimpse of how the events after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, affected their teacher and his family. Such lectures show that Sept. 11 and its aftermath are rapidly becoming part of the history taught in U.S. schools.
"Thanks for letting me share my son's story with you," Commons told his students. "It's hard for me to do this, but I'm so proud of him. . . . I'm a lucky father. I got to talk to my son before he died. I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me, too."
Cpl. Matthew Commons was the youngest of the soldiers killed March 4, 2002, in a battle named for Takur Ghar, the rugged mountain peak where it unfolded. The 21-year-old was among a team that tried to rescue a Navy SEAL who had fallen from another helicopter.
The lesson Commons gives is quiet. Students don't debate the tactics or politics of the war on terror. The former Marine neither encourages nor discourages military service. Instead, Commons talked about community service, telling the students they should find ways to volunteer, even through tasks as small as cutting the grass for an elderly neighbor.
"My government class has to do 20 hours of community service . . . and I know you complain," Commons told a class yesterday. "Community service is a lifelong commitment."
There is another message. "I think it's important for you to know there is a face to this war," he added. "Some of you are going to go into the military after high school, and it's not easy."
Commons, 55, who sold plumbing supplies before earning a bachelor's degree in history from George Mason University in 1996, has always used stories about his family in class. His students have heard about all four of his sons.
In December 2001, not long before he was deployed, Matt visited his father's classroom while Commons was a history teacher at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Fairfax County. Matt, dressed in his uniform, spent a day talking to seventh-graders about life as an Army Ranger.