BLACKSBURG, Va. — Almost eight years after Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets marched into Westview Cemetery to bury their slain comrade, Air Force Cadet Matthew J. La Porte, they did so once more. This time, as those in the long line of gray and white synchronized their footsteps to the rap of two lone snare drums, they came not to mourn La Porte but to celebrate his heroism.
On Thursday, with the thousand-strong Corps of Cadets stretched out along the cemetery’s hill, the Air Force posthumously awarded La Porte, of Dumont, N.J., the Airman’s Medal for his actions on the morning of the massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.
The medal is the highest award for heroism an airman can receive when not directly involved in combat with an armed enemy of the United States.
Yet the citation, read by one of La Porte’s Air Force ROTC’s officers, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Keith Gay, was reminiscent of those earned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of telling a story from a distant battlefield, Gay spoke of a 20-year-old sophomore in his intermediate French class who, even after the professor told the class to hide in the back of the room, ran to the front to help other students barricade the door.
“When the shooter forced his way into the classroom, Cadet La Porte, in complete disregard for his own safety, unhesitatingly charged the shooter . . . drawing heavy fire at close range and sustaining seven gunshot wounds,” Gay read. “He sacrificed his own life in an attempt to save others.”
On the morning that La Porte and 31 other students and faculty members were gunned down by Virginia Tech senior Seung Hui Cho, Cadet Collin Hu — La Porte’s friend and now an Army captain — was on duty with the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad.
“Initially, I thought we were going to the hospital to collect bodies to take to the morgue, and the next thing I know, we’re going to Norris Hall,” Hu said in an interview. “That’s how I found out Matt was killed. That’s where I saw the body bag.”
Hu wasn’t just La Porte’s friend and hallmate: They played the same instrument, the tenor drum, in the Corps of Cadets’ regimental band, the Highty-Tighties.
“From my experience — and in addition to talking to everyone else that was involved and seeing everything that was there — I fully feel that Matt saved lives with his actions that day,” Hu said. “I am very grateful that this is finally coming to light. . . . The award has been a long time coming.”
In the days after the shooting, rumors began circulating that La Porte had rushed Cho in an attempt to stop him, and soon after, Gay began searching for the six eyewitnesses who made it out of La Porte’s French classroom: Norris Hall, Room 211.
“There are various criteria associated with the award, and one of them is that it has to be justified by eyewitness statements,” Gay said. “It was hard to get in touch with them. It was hard to discover some of them. That is what took so long, that is what took seven and a half years.”
Yet eyewitnesses were only one part of the award’s required paperwork. Gay also submitted statements and corroborating evidence from first responders and a thank-you letter to the La Porte family from the mother of Heidi Miller, a classmate of La Porte’s who was shot three times and survived.
The mother, Lolly Miller, was convinced after reading law enforcement reports and public documents related to the shooting that La Porte saved her daughter’s life.
“I believe that because of Matt’s actions, that’s one of the reasons my daughter is alive — because he was willing to guard the door,” Miller said. “It allowed some of the people in that room to make their own decision about what to do to save their own life.”
Gay submitted the paperwork for the award to the Air Force in December 2013, and he was notified of its approval in September.
“This needed to be done,” Gay said. “It was my duty. I was one of his officers. We have to be there for each other, and it was the right thing to do.”
Gay read La Porte’s citation a few feet away from his final resting place: a gray headstone dug flat into the ground and marked by a pair of tenor drumsticks and the white citation cord that the Highty-Tighties wear on their left shoulder. The cord denotes the unit citation the band received after its voluntary service in the Spanish-American War.
Next to Gay stood Cadet Dave Robison, who held La Porte’s tenor drum. In the days after La Porte’s death, one by one his classmates had signed it in black marker.
La Porte, like many heroes, was an unlikely one. Lanky with short-cropped hair, he was descibed by his friends as someone who was unstoppable when he put his mind to it yet wasn’t without his quirks.
“Matt in many ways was our space cadet but at the same time was that person who put his mind to things and did great,” Hu said, referring to La Porte’s time in the highly competitive Armed Forces Special Operations Preparatory Team platoon, a physical training element that prepared cadets for the U.S. military’s special operations units. It was in the AFSOPT platoon that La Porte thrived and would eventually help lead after his freshman year.
According to the current Commandant of the Corps of Cadets, retired Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart, La Porte has become an essential part of Corps history. His name and story is taught to freshmen and has been etched on the side of the Corp’s rappelling tower. One of the Air Force ROTC classrooms also has been named after him.
“He touched people,” said La Porte’s mother, Barbara.
“I think everyone’s here because they saw something that was awe-inspiring, that reached to your heart,” she added. “In some ways, he becomes part of the history, and if it reaches those who come to school here and touches them in a positive way, that’s great.”