Matthew Allen Commons
Corporal, United States Army
From contemporary press reports:
Soldier, Son, Brother Laid to Rest
The young soldier came home with a tattoo, as young soldiers so often do, and his mother cringed at the thought of it, as mothers so often do.
But the tattoo that Patricia Marek's son chose to display on his back was a cross, bigger than her hand, with "Jesus" flowing over it in Hebrew script. It made her proud, and she told him so. She brought it up in her prayers to God, too.
"I would say, 'Okay, he's wearing your cross. Please don't let him bear your cross,' " Marek said.
Then, on March 4 on a mountain in eastern Afghanistan, her 21-year-old son, Corporal Matthew A. Commons, was killed in combat.
Yesterday, in a ceremony that cast his death as an act of sacrifice for his country, Matt Commons was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery six months to the day after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and 18 months after he enlisted.
On a day that was as clear as September 11, the crowd of mourners gazed skyward from time to time as jets from Reagan National Airport thundered overhead. Beyond the line of riflemen that fired off three volleys in salute, two cranes swung over the Pentagon as work went on to rebuild the section damaged by one of the hijacked planes.
When a bugler sounded taps, the shoulders of Commons's father, Gregory J. Commons, began to heave.
Sergeant First Class Michael Masson, a member of Commons's unit, presented a crisply folded flag to Marek and Commons, who divorced when their two sons were young. Brigadier General Richard Mills, Deputy Commanding General of the Army Special Operations Command, presented Commons's parents with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star for valor and a Meritorious Service Medal, all awarded to their son posthumously. Commons, a Private First Class, was also promoted to corporal after his death.
Then Generalo Eric K. Shinseki, Army chief of staff, stopped to offer his condolences. When Greg Commons, a former Marine, tried to stand and salute the four-star general, Shinseki motioned for him to remain seated, as if to show that yesterday's honors were for Commons and his family alone.
Senator John W. Warner (R-Virginia) followed, then the Army's highest-ranking noncommissioned officer and, finally, a line of young men from Commons's unit, the 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, from Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. When the mourners began to depart, Aaron Commons, 18, knelt over his brother's silver casket and prayed.
"He made a sacrifice that will always be remembered," the Rev. Joseph Annese said in his eulogy. Annese is pastor of the church in Boulder City, Nevada, where Matt Commons taught Sunday school.
At Greg Commons's home in Fairfax County before the funeral, the family described their grief, which was mixed with enormous pride.
Matt Commons wanted to be a soldier like his father -- and then after that, maybe a history teacher like his father, who works at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Fairfax County. Commons turned 21 last month in Afghanistan. On March 4, he became the youngest of seven soldiers to die in a firefight south of Gardez as he and his comrades tried to save a Navy SEAL. Two other soldiers killed in that battle -- Specialist Marc A. Anderson, 30, of Brandon, Florida, and Sergeant Bradley Crose, 22, of Orange Park, Florida -- were laid to rest yesterday in Florida.
"He had volunteered for a rescue operation," Greg Commons said. "That was the epitome of Matt's life; his whole life was giving."
Commons's parents gave their sons biblical names and raised them with a midwestern variety of no-nonsense, no-free-ride, tough love.
Neither parent was thrilled when Matt joined the military after flunking out of college. But they thought that the military might give him direction. When terrorists struck September 11, they knew what it might mean for their son.
"When September 11 hit, I was frantic, frantic!" Patricia Marek said. "That's all I was doing, was saying, 'Please God, take care of him. Don't send him there.' I told [a relative], 'I know he's going to go over there, and I'll never see my baby again.' "
Matthew Allen Commons was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and grew up mostly in Boulder City, a suburb of Las Vegas. He was a cut-up who did well in school. He was secretary of the senior class and one of the "rah rah boys," a boisterous group that dressed in drag to cheer at high school games.
He played soccer and went to summer camps, including one at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he got a taste of military life and liked it.
Despite the fissures caused by divorce and relocation, his family remained close. The boys stayed with their mother during the school year and spent summers with their father in Virginia.
Matt Commons loved his half-brothers, Patrick, 9, and Thomas, 7. "He gave to them. He taught them," Greg Commons said.
He also grew up knowing that his father and grandfathers had served in the military. So when Commons flunked out of the University of Nevada at Reno because he spent too much time snowboarding, he enlisted.
About 11:30 p.m. on March 4, an officer knocked on Greg Commons's door with the terrible news.
Commons then located Matt's mother, who had recently moved to the area, and broke it to her. He also called Aaron, a freshman studying biochemistry at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. "He's devastated," Greg Commons said.
But Commons's parents said their son died for a just cause.
"We've all lost not just a son or a brother; we lost a best friend," said Patricia Marek.
She said that she imagined Matt entering heaven at the crack of the bullet that struck him but that she still feels his presence.
"There's true meaning in what he did there,
because he died for all of us," she said. "He's with God."
Three Army Rangers were buried Monday, one at Arlington National Cemetery and two in Florida, a week after they died trying to rescue another soldier on the deadliest day for America in the Afghan war.
The Pentagon, damaged in the terror attacks that pushed the nation into war, sat in full view of the more than 100 relatives, friends and comrades of Corporal Matthew A. Commons of Boulder City, Nevada, who gathered at Arlington National Cemetery.
Commons, 21, was the youngest of seven servicemen killed March 4 near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan.
"We honor his memory, touched by his honesty, patriotism and his love for God and fellow man," the Rev. Joseph Annese told mourners at a graveside service on a brilliant, cool afternoon.
In separate funerals in two Florida cities, Specialist Marc A. Anderson, 30, of Brandon, Florida, and Sergeant Bradley Crose, 22, of Orange Park, Flprida, also were praised as courageous soldiers who lived and died by the Ranger Creed — never leave a fallen comrade behind.
The three soldiers, members of 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, died during a nine-hour firefight trying to rescue a Navy Seal.
"It is a very, very sad time for our family. In the same respect, it is a very, very proud time," said Anderson's father, David, before a funeral Mass for his son at St. Raphael Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. David Anderson was a decorated Ranger who served three tours in Vietnam in the 1960s.
The hearse bearing Crose's remains traveled a five-mile route lined with thousands of flag-waving people. "Bradley had guts. He believed in God. He believed in his family. And he believed what he was doing was right," 1st Lt. Josh Collins, a Ranger, said during a funeral at Pinewood Presbyterian Church in Orange Park.
Rifle volleys rang out at all three funerals. Parents received folded flags from the caskets. The soldiers posthumously were awarded the Bronze Star with valor, Purple Heart and meritorious service medals. Commons also received a promotion.
At Arlington, six pallbearers carried Commons' flag-draped coffin as Rangers in tan berets stood at attention. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, Senator John Warner, R-Va., and soldiers from Commons' unit paid their respects to Commons' parents and three brothers.
When the service ended and the crowd departed, Commons' father, Gregory, knelt at the casket and prayed. Then, the ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran rose to his feet and gave his son a final salute.
Members of the Third United States Infantry (The Old Guard)
Carry The Casket Of Matthew A. Commons To The Gravesite
At Arlington National Cemetery
Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Thomas, commander of the 1st Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment, promoted Commons for his actions under enemy fire in defense of his country, a Special Operations spokesman said.
Commons, who grew up in Boulder City, Nevada, and was a 1999 graduate of Boulder City High School, was among seven U.S. servicemen killed Monday during Operation Anaconda.
He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Monday. Services are planned as well in Boulder City and Indianapolis, family members said.
Commons and his team had been brought into battle Monday by two CH-47 Chinook helicopters when they came under heavy ground fire by surrounding enemy forces.
According to a statement from the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Commons was a grenade-launcher gunner who had served nearly two years in the Army and had graduated from airborne school. Two others from the 1st Battalion who were killed in the firefight were Sergeant Bradley Crose, 22, and Specialist Marc A. Anderson, 30, a machine gunner.
In addition to his promotion, Commons has been awarded the Bronze Star with valor, the Purple Heart and his Ranger ribbon.
Greg Commons said members of his son's Ranger regiment visited him at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday and shared stories about his son.
They also presented him with a letter expressing their sympathy and praising Matthew Commons' work with the unit.
Greg Commons, a former Marine, said he read the letter aloud to family members who have been gathering at the home in preparation for Monday's funeral.
"I wanted to make sure they understood the importance of what he had done," Commons said. "It was a very, very heartwarming letter and very heart-wrenching to read how much they respected my son."
He said the Army has not given him an exact account of how his son died in combat, but he expects the information to be forthcoming once all the soldiers that were there are debriefed and a report is assembled.
Matthew A. Commons was born February 18, 1981, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He attended grade school in Indianapolis until his family moved to Boulder City about 11 years ago.
In Boulder City, he was active in St. Andrews Catholic Community. He was an honors student and a member of the soccer team at Boulder City High School. He was also elected secretary of his senior class.
He attended the University of Nevada, Reno for a year before enlisting in the Army in July 2000.
A memorial service for him in Boulder City by the American Legion Post is planned for March 15, and one will be announced next week by St. Andrews Catholic Community.
The family prefers donations be made in his
name to a scholarship fund in care of St. Andrews Catholic Community, 1399
San Felipe Dr., Boulder City, NV 89005.
Serviceman killed in Afghanistan was following dad's footsteps
The father of one of seven U.S. servicemen killed in Afghanistan said his son was following his footsteps into the military and hoped to also follow him into teaching.
Army Private First Class Matthew A. Commons, 21, "served his country and he loved his country," said Gregory J. Commons, 50, a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam and whose father also served in the Marines.
"He mirrored my life in a lot of ways," Gregory Commons said in a telephone interview from his home in Alexandria, Virginia.
Matthew Commons was single and listed his hometown as Boulder City, Nevada, a community about 30 miles east of Las Vegas. His divorced parents now live in Virginia.
The elder Commons, a history teacher, said his son visited his middle school classroom in Fairfax County in December, dressed in his Army Ranger battle dress uniform. He planned to follow his father into the classroom once he left the military, Gregory Commons said.
"There are times he said to me, 'You did OK,'" Commons said.
Matthew Commons and six other soldiers were killed Monday during the bloodiest operation of the war - an air and ground offensive against al-Qaida forces in the snowy eastern Afghanistan mountains near the town of Gardez. An American soldier was also killed Saturday.
Commons also grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and leaves behind relatives in central Indiana who plan to travel to Virginia for his funeral on Monday. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
His grandmother, Martha Commons, of Indianapolis, described her grandson as "full of fun" and noted that he followed his father's path into the military after high school.
"I have some misgivings about war - period," Martha Commons said. "I'm not bitter. I would prefer that we weren't over there."
"Matt is a good example of what's right about kids in America," said Lynn Stewart, a Boulder City High School government teacher and Vietnam veteran who said he remembered Commons well.
"He was a good, solid kid," Stewart said. "He loved his country and was willing to put his life on the line."
Pam Murphy, a mother whose son, Shawn Murphy, was a close friend with Matthew Commons, said the family had seen Commons at Christmas.
"He was excited because he was training to become a Ranger," Pam Murphy said. "He was a good and honorable kid."
Commons was a member of the 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia.
Gregory Commons said the Army told him his son was engaged in a rescue operation when he was killed.
"He gave his life to save the life of another Ranger," the elder Commons said.
He said he and his wife, Patricia, had two sons, Matthew and Aaron, now 18, before they divorced in 1986. Matthew Commons lived with his mother, now Patricia Marek, outside of Boulder City, but spent summers with his father. Aaron Commons now attends college in Colorado.
Matthew Commons was a soccer player, a class officer and an honor student. He graduated from high school in 1999, but dropped out of the University of Nevada at Reno and joined the military for "some structure," said Gregory Commons, the ex-Marine.
"When he called to tell me he joined the Army, I said, 'You did what?' He was tough, he was macho. He was proud of being a Ranger."
Commons, an Indiana native, said he and his former wife agreed after their divorce to put their differences aside when it came to raising their two sons. She returned to Virginia to share their grief. Patricia Marek could not be reached for comment.
"We cried through the night," Gregory Commons said. "He took the best from the both of us.
"He was a good kid. I'm going to miss him."
Former high school girlfriend Brittney Haworth, 20, of Las Vegas, said Commons had been e-mailing and calling her from Afghanistan every few weeks.
"He was an amazing guy. When he first told me he was going over there, I was really scared, but I was really proud of him," said the Mandalay Bay resort hostess, who dated Commons for about a year. "He was excited to be doing what he was doing and he was doing exactly what he wanted."
Commons is the second Nevada serviceman to
die since fighting began in Afghanistan. Jason Disney, an Army specialist
from Fallon, died February 13 at Bagram Air Base, 40 miles north of Kabul,
Afghanistan, when a large piece of equipment fell on him.
Boulder City soldier 'gave the ultimate,' even in death
Patricia Marek, mother of Private First Class Matthew Allen Commons of Boulder City, knew something was wrong Monday when her 21-year-old son failed to call home as usual.
Military officials on Tuesday informed her and her ex-husband Gregory Commons, that their oldest son had died that day of a fatal head wound, killed in Afghanistan during an Army Ranger mission to rescue another U.S. soldier captured by al-Qaida fighters.
Commons, a 1999 graduate of Boulder City High School, was one of seven U.S. troops killed Monday, and the second Nevadan to die in Afghanistan this year. Just more than a week ago, Army Specialist Jason A. Disney, 20, of Fallon, was killed in an accident at Bagram Air Base near Kabul.
Commons, whose father and grandfather served as Marines in the Vietnam War and World War II respectively was remembered today by family, friends, local and state leaders as a well-liked, thoughtful young man who was active in his church and worked summers as a deckhand on a Lake Mead tour boat.
Marek since January had spoken to her son by phone each Monday from her new home in Alexandria, Virginia. She works there as an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Not able to speak of Common's activities because of the secrecy of his mission, she and her son spent much of their time talking about a difficult divorce she is going through. The last time they spoke, just more than a week ago, they spoke for 23 minutes, she said.
"He wanted to make sure I was OK, that I had everything I needed, that I wasn't starving or out on the street," she said, noting he wanted to give her money. "He would give the shirt off his back to anyone, and I guess he did. He gave the ultimate."
Marek said she will miss her son's smile. "He always hugged me. He wasn't afraid ever to say 'I love you, mom' in front of other people."
For his 21st birthday, which he celebrated in Afghanistan last month, Marek sent him cheese, crackers and party hats. She couldn't send him a cake.
"And he wanted Vienna sausages. 'Send me Vienna sausages,' he said."
Marek and Gregory Commons, divorced 16 years, were grieving together today at Commons' home in Virginia. Commons is a middle school history teacher there.
"He loved his country. He felt a strong sense of honor and loyalty to his family and his country and his church," Mr. Commons said. "I'm very proud and very sad. We'll never hunt or golf together again."
Matthew Commons was also remembered by parents at Boulder City High School, teachers and a former principal.
Brenda Mooney, a secretary at the high school, remembered Matthew bringing flowers to her daughter, a classmate of his, after she had her wisdom teeth pulled.
"He was thoughtful," she said, struggling to maintain her composure.
Lynn Stewart, a government teacher at Boulder City High School for 32 years, said he and Matthew joked about things while studying the upcoming 2000 presidential race and local political races.
"He wasn't a flashy kid. Just solid, a decent kid. He did what he was supposed to do," Stewart said.
Bill Garis, former principal of Boulder City High School, said Matthew had graduated with about 135 other students in a year when the basketball team won the state AAA championship.
"Matt was just one of those students who did very well across the board," Garis said. "But what I remember most was that he was so well-liked by the other students."
Senators Harry Reid, D-Nev, and John Ensign, R-Nev, also issued statements expressing their pride and gratefulness at the young man's service in the fight against terrorism.
Matthew Commons arrived in Boulder City with his mother and younger brother Aaron in 1991, earning honors for his classwork up through his graduation in 1999. He also played soccer and served as class secretary.
He enrolled at University of Nevada, Reno in 1999, but dropped out in his freshman year. On July 27, 2000, he enlisted with the Army, eventually training as an elite soldier in the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia. He planned to become a history professor, Marek said.
That was one reason for her recent move to Virginia.
"It would only be a nine-hour drive to Savannah and we could meet half way," she said. "I figured for once in my life we wouldn't have to fly all over creation to be together."
Pausing to think, she then said that the trip
would be less now, if, as planned, her son is buried with honors at Arlington
WASHINGTON, March 5 Trapped by intense hostile fire and unable to evacuate their wounded for 12 hours, American Special Operations forces fought off an Al Qaeda ambush in some of the most grueling and gruesome combat of the five- month-old war in Afghanistan officials said today.
When it was over on Monday, the bodies of 7 American servicemen and 11 wounded comrades were lifted off the battlefield under guard of American combat aircraft. Their machine guns and cannon of AC- 130's drove back the advancing fighters but not before commanders monitoring airborne surveillance video had seen Al Qaeda fighters dragging off an American serviceman to his death, military officials said.
Important fresh details of a set of combat operations that began Sunday and were waged over a sprawling battlefield emerged as Pentagon officials said the hard-core Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters making a last stand in eastern Afghanistan suffered heavy casualties but also surprised American forces by their fierce resistance. "I don't think we knew what we were getting into this time, but I think we're beginning to adjust," Sergeant Major Mark Nielsen told a reporter in the Pentagon press pool for the operation.
Some of the heaviest fighting of the five-month war also brought the heaviest American combat losses, with Pentagon officials and senior military officers describing a battlefield where the topography itself was as hostile as the adversary allowing opposing fighters, who seemed willing to fight to the death rather than surrender, to charge and then retreat to fortified caves and trenches.
But most of all, they described the heroism of those American servicemen who fell in combat, and those who went in to bring them back.
One of the American commandos killed was a Navy Seal, Petty Officer Neil C. Roberts, 32, who tumbled from one of two MH-47 Chinook helicopters that was to carry in Special Operations forces. Just as the helicopters touched down about 5:30 p.m. Sunday Eastern time in the dark of night in Afghanistan, where it is 9 1/2 hours later one of the helicopters was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, officials said. Both lifted off quickly and flew about a mile, where they set down again to check for damage.
That was when they realized that Petty Officer Roberts was not on board. But commanders had access to real-time surveillance videos shot by a Predator, an unmanned airborne vehicle, and they saw his capture.
"We saw him on the Predator being dragged off by three Al Qaeda men," said Major General Frank L. Hagenbeck, commander of the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, N.Y., who is in charge of the ground operation in Afghanistan.
One of the two helicopters flew back to where Petty Officer Roberts was lost, and dropped off its Special Operations team to try to rescue him.
In addition, General Hagenbeck, speaking to reporters in a Pentagon press pool in Afghanistan, said that "a quick reaction force of about 30 Special Operations troops" was also sent to rescue him.
"We don't leave Americans behind," said Brigadier General John W. Rosa, Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By about 9 p.m. Eastern time Sunday, two more Chinooks touched down about a mile or so from where the Navy Seal was last seen. The opposing forces apparently had set up an ambush and were waiting.
One Chinook was able to drop off its Special Operations team and depart; the other was riddled with machine-gun fire and hit by grenades, and could not fly.
"A large number of the enemy advanced on them," a senior military officer said. The Americans fired back, setting up fighting positions and calling in attack jets as well as AC-130 gunships that brought a withering fire of heavy machine guns and cannon, the Pentagon said.
Before they were rescued by helicopter 12 hours later, 6 Americans had been killed and 11 more wounded. The Pentagon today identified the dead as Sergeant Bradley S. Crose, 27; Sergeant Philip J. Svitak, 31; Specialist Marc A. Anderson, 30, and Private First Class Matthew A. Commons, 21, all of the Army; and Technical Sergeane John A. Chapman, 36, and Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, 26, of the Air Force.
The body of Petty Officer Roberts was also recovered and carried out aboard a rescue helicopter. He died of a bullet wound, apparently at the hands of his captors, military officials said.
After describing the bitter losses, senior officers expressed no doubts today that the remaining Al Qaeda and Taliban will be captured or killed in coming days.
"The final outcome of this is certain," said one senior military officer. "We will kill or capture all of the Al Qaeda. The only thing that is in doubt is how long that will take."
American combat troops for Operation Anaconda told a Pentagon pool reporter from The Associated Press harrowing tales of being pinned down by hostile fire.
Elements of the 10th Mountain Division were pinned down on Saturday after taking fire from the town of Marzak. Lieutenant Colonel Frank LaCamer, who was among those trapped, said about 40 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division spent 12 hours under fire from mortar and rocket-propelled grenades that landed within 15 yards, wounding 13.
And Colonel Frank Wiercinski, a brigade commander for the 101st Airborne Division, said that shortly after he landed south of Sirkankel to survey the battle his detachment of about 11 men were attacked and pinned down.
Sergeant Major Nielsen's detachment came under fire before they seized a Qaeda compound a half mile from Sirkankel. When they arrived, they made a startling discovery.
"It was unbelievable, in the mud hut where these guys slept, the beds were still warm and tea was still brewing," he said.
The strain of continuous operations at high altitude has prompted American officials to ready forces to replace the Americans on the ground, military officials said, although the numbers of American fighters on the battlefield had not grown in the past 24 hours.
Five fresh Cobra attack helicopters, which had been based on the Bonhomme Richard, a Marine Corps amphibious assault ship in the North Arabian Sea, have joined Army Apaches. All of the Apaches flying during the first day of battle were hit by fire from the ground, but none were lost in action, officials said. In addition, the Air Force A-10, a heavily armored, slow-flying attack aircraft normally used to destroy tanks, has been sent into battle in Afghanistan for the first time, its targets the opposing troops gathering together.
Correspondents traveling with the Pentagon pool for the combat mission were told that an opening offensive had sent a detachment of Special Forces to work with General Zia Lodin, a local commander, and to secure the village of Sirkankel, about 25 miles south of Gardez.
But Al Qaeda and non-Afghan Taliban fighters surprised the allied force of about 450 with a fierce defense, killing one American and two Afghans and wounding 24. More than 40 Americans have been wounded since the operation began, although 18 of those have already returned to combat, officials said.
Military officials said the battle against Al Qaeda and Taliban who have regrouped near Gardez is being carried out in steep mountain peaks dotted with caves, as well against some structures in the valleys.
General Rosa said allied troops overran one cave and found a sizeable cache of weapons. At another building, they found foreign passports and drivers licenses.
General Rosa said the sustained allied attack is taking its toll on Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
"I think the biggest thing to change, and not
to be flip, is we've killed a lot of people," he said. "They're not roaming
around freely like they were; they're dug in. They're hunkered in. We've
got a simultaneous attack at times with air from the U.S. and coalition
forces. But I think it's tougher on them right now, and they're not moving
quite as freely."
COMMONS, MATTHEW A., CORPORAL. U.S. Army
On Monday, March 4, 2002, of Boulder City, Nevada and Alexandria, Virginia, CORPORAL MATTHEW A. COMMONS.
Beloved son of Patricia A. Marek and Gregory J. Commons and his wife, Linda Chapman; loving brother of Aaron, Patrick and Thomas. Also surviving are his grandparents, Harry and Margherita Marek, Martha J. Commons and Marvin and Judy Chapman.
Friends may call at JEFFERSON FUNERAL CHAPEL, 5755 Castlewellan Dr., Alexandria, Virginia (just south of the intersection of South Van Dorn and Franconia Road) on Sunday, March 10 from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. with prayers at 7 p.m. Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, 8710 Mt. Vernon Hwy., Alexandria, Virginia, 22309 on Monday, March 11, at 10:30 a.m. Interment Arlington National Cemetery with Military Honors.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Matthew
A. Commons Memorial Scholarship, St. Andrew's Catholic Community, 1599
San Felipe Dr., Boulder City, Nevada 89005.
Grieving Educator Uses Soldier's Death to Teach, and to Learn
By Maria Glod
Courtesy of the Washington Post
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 September 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."
Corporal 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.
Commons remembers their walk to the parking lot that afternoon. "He said, 'Dad, this teaching thing is really neat,' " Commons recalled. "He said, 'I think when I get out of the Army, I'm going back to college and I'm going to be a history teacher like you.' "
To commemorate the first anniversary of Matt's death, Commons showed his middle school students an episode of the television show "7th Heaven" about a soldier who died in Afghanistan. The show was dedicated to Matt and other soldiers who died in the war on terror.
When Commons moved to Annandale in 2004, he put together a more complex and emotional presentation for the high school students. That year, the Discovery Channel produced a reenactment of the battle that the students watched. They see photos of the Rangers in Afghanistan, images of an Al Qaeda bunker on the mountain, and photos of Matt's funeral.
But Commons lets his students know that the war hero also was once a teenager like them. Matt flunked out of college, Commons told them, because he "perfected his snowboarding skills instead of his academic skills." Told by his father he'd have 60 days to find a job, Matt joined the Army.
Commons, who has kept the slim build of a Marine, paced around the lecture hall during the presentations. At times his voice cracked and his eyes welled. Other times, he laughed aloud, joking about the blond-tip highlights Matt had in his hair at a photo taken outside an Army recruiting office. Other teachers sent some of their students to hear Commons's lecture. "The kids get to see me as a human being," Commons said after class.
After class, Luan Cao, 18, said Commons had told his students about Matt's death on the first day of school.
"We've always known about it," Cao said, "but we never could feel what he felt losing someone like that." Over lunch, Cao and his friends wondered aloud how difficult the lesson must be for Commons.
"While we were watching, I was thinking if that happened to me, I probably couldn't do it. Watching the footage from the Predator, that was pretty intense," said Mustafa Es-Haq, 17. "I saw both of them die, and I thought that must take extreme courage."
"When that scene popped up I looked down," said Noman Sarker, 17. "I didn't want to see it."
It was hard for Commons, too. Students in his Friday class didn't see the Predator video. Commons cut it because it had become too painful to watch.
Tomorrow, Commons and his family plan to go to church and visit Arlington Cemetery to mark the fifth anniversary of Matt's death. Next week, Commons and his students will return to a lesson on how Congress makes laws.
Section 66, Grave 6855
Photo By M. R. Patterson, October 2002
COMMONS, MATTHEW A
CPL US ARMY
VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 02/18/2001 - 03/01/2002
DATE OF BIRTH: 02/18/1981
DATE OF DEATH: 03/04/2002
DATE OF INTERMENT: 03/11/2002
BURIED AT: SECTION 66 SITE 6855
Posted: 8 March 2002 Updated: 11 March 2002 Updated: 6 October 2002 Updated: 22 February 2003 Updated: 29 June 2004 Updated: 27 January 2007