Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Washington Post. We reprint in part here.
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.”
La Porte, 20, was among 32 people who were killed.
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.”
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