Rembering Corporal Commons

Hometown Heroes, People
on May 18, 2003

Corporal Matthew A. Commons, a member of the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, was aboard one of two MH-47 Chinook helicopters carrying Special Operations forces. They were hit by enemy fire while trying to rescue Navy Seal Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, 32, of Woodland, Calif. (pop. 49,151). Surveillance video had shown Roberts falling from a helicopter and being captured by three al-Qaeda fighters …

A gold star glints on Gregory Commons’ shirt not far from his heart. It’s a military service pin that parents pray they’ll never receive, because the star represents a child killed in combat.

On March 4, 2002, Greg’s son, Pfc. Matthew A. Commons, 21, was killed in Afghanistan on an Army Ranger mission to rescue another U.S. soldier captured by al-Qaeda fighters. Commons was the youngest of seven servicemen killed.

“I’m proud and sad that he gave so much,” says Patricia Marek, his mother. “Matt lived what he believed, and I think that’s remarkable for someone his age.”

Last Memorial Day, a day honoring those who have died in our nation’s service, the family decorated his grave at Arlington National Cemetery after Commons was buried with military honors on March 11, six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Family and friends vow that Commons and his sacrifice will never be forgotten.

In his hometown of Boulder City, Nev. (pop. 40,340), the VFW post has been named the Cpl. Matthew A. Commons Memorial Post No. 36. The Class of ’99 at Boulder City High School dedicated two memorial stones to their classmate. They’re inscribed “Our Soaring Eagle” and “Rangers Lead the Way.”

The week Commons was killed, fifth graders at Jack Dailey Elementary School in Las Vegas were studying a chapter on great Americans. They added Commons to their list and recited the Pledge of Allegiance in his honor each morning for the rest of the year.

“It’s hard not to think about him,” Marek says of her son. “I miss his laugh, his goofiness. When Matt walked into a room, there was instant noise. You knew he was there.”

The Commons divorced in 1986, but put aside differences to raise their two sons, Matthew and Aaron. During the school year, the boys stayed with Mom in Boulder City. Summertime and school breaks, they hopped a plane to stay with Dad in Alexandria, Va.

Both parents remarried and brought siblings into the fold. Being close to his family—all of his family—was important to Commons, says his stepsister Michele Sabatino.

“Matt didn’t have the usual teenage hang-ups about loving his family,” she says. “He would say, ‘Mom, I love you’ in front of his friends. They could talk about anything. Aaron went everywhere with Matt. They were almost one. MattandAaron, one word.”

A gung-ho soccer player since age 5, a high school honor student and class secretary, a cut-up who painted his face and cheered on the school team, and a guy who couldn’t get his fill of Skittles are some of the family’s memories of Commons.

“Matt could interact and converse with adults who were 30 or 80. That always amazed me,” says his father, Greg, who teaches history at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Alexandria. He recalls the summer when the boys were 10 and 12 and printed fliers offering their services as weed pullers and flower waterers.

“They made so much money,” Greg Commons marvels. “I think it’s because they were such nice kids.”

The family has a history of military service. The father served with the Marines during Vietnam, and both grandfathers in World War II. But Matthew chose the path on his own.

After high school, he attended college, but had poor grades and found himself at 19 wondering what to do next.

“He said ‘Mom, I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t know what to do. I want to see the world,’” Marek recalls. “Matt always took care of his own problems.” She remembers an incident not long after he started driving.

“He called me in the garage, showed me a speeding ticket, and handed over the car keys,” she says. No fuss. They had made a contract that he would lose driving privileges if he got a ticket.

Greg Commons says he wasn’t thrilled at first when his son called and said he’d enlisted.

“But he said, ‘Dad, I want to be a Ranger. I want to be the best I can be.’ I couldn’t really argue with a 19-year-old who wanted to be the best.”

Family and friends say that Commons found his niche in the military. His letters and phone calls home reflected his happiness.

“He’d say, ‘Oh, I woke up at 4 o’clock and ran five miles.’ He loved the military,” says his girlfriend, Brittney Haworth, 21. The pair dated throughout high school.

On one of Commons’ last visits home, he spoke to his father’s class. The handsome, brown-eyed young man dressed in his Army Ranger battle dress uniform was impressive.

“It was so neat to sit back and listen to Matt talk about how proud he was,” Commons says. “He told about the different weapons and what a Ranger went through in training and practice maneuvers. The Ranger infantry is the main airdrop into enemy territory to secure the area.”

With his 21st birthday approaching on Feb. 18, Marek boxed up a party to go and sent it to Afghanistan—two cases of Vienna sausage, peanut-butter crackers, cardboard party hats, a “Happy Birthday” banner, confetti, and more. She laughs as she recalls packing 15 boxes.

In their last telephone conversation, Marek says her son told her the guys had a blast at his party.

On March 4, Greg Commons’ wife, Linda, heard a news bulletin about two U.S. Army helicopters going down in Afghanistan. Commons told her not to worry. “The chances are literally one in 10,000 that it’s Matt,” he said.

Word came at 11:30 p.m. from Army Cpt. George Antone, a casualty notifier from Fort Myer, Va. “I regret to inform you,” he said, “that your son has been mortally wounded in a rescue operation trying to save another soldier.”

Within hours of learning of Commons’ death, family and friends began to gather. Neighbors opened their homes and offered beds and meals. They shuttled friends from the airport and brought in covered dishes. They draped a bridge near Commons’ home with a flag and black bunting.

Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Mount Vernon, Va., (pop. 28,582) and graveside services at Arlington National Cemetery where Commons was eulogized as a hero and posthumously promoted to corporal. Soldiers fired a 21-gun salute while a bugler played Taps.

“I know Matt’s an angel,” Marek says. “I’m extremely proud of his service to God, his country, and his family.”

Until last September, Marek also lived in Alexandria and was able to visit her son’s grave daily. She since has moved to Littleton, Colo., (pop. 40,340) for a job and to be close to her other son, Aaron, 19, who attends the University of Colorado at Greeley.

A month after Commons died, his high school sweetheart, Haworth, received a letter. Commons had written it and entrusted it with a Ranger brother to be mailed upon his death.

Haworth says, “It’s the sweetest and by far the best love letter I will probably ever receive. Matt talks about our would-be future. He talks about when he came home, we would realize we should be together and eventually we would get married.”

Haworth, a nanny in Washington, D.C., often visits Commons’ grave. She walks among the headstones and checks the birth dates.

“I told Matt he must be the youngest one there,” she says. “Not many people my age can say they dated a national hero.”

People often ask him how he copes, says Greg Commons.

“There are parents who lose a child to SIDS or a drunk driver and they ask ‘why?’” he says. “I don’t have to ask why. I know why my son died. He died trying to save a fellow soldier. That’s the American soldier’s creed. You don’t leave anyone behind.”