Life full of promise cut short

Air Force Times


Students grieve fellow cadet killed in Virginia Tech massacre

By Patrick Winn -
Posted : April 30, 2007

There were nuances to Matthew La Porte, the Air Force ROTC cadet shot dead inside his morning French class.

Friends and mentors say his buzz cut belied a sharp wit.

La Porte, 20, was killed in the nation’s deadliest massacre, a shooting rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., that left 32 dead before the gunman killed himself April 16.

Two days after the incident, his family was finalizing arrangements to have the cadet buried on the university campus, said the family’s priest, Rev. James Bouffard.

Word of the cadet’s death tore through his brethren at both the college’s Corps of Cadets and at the Pennsylvania military school La Porte graduated from just two years ago.

Both circles are tight. Both are now deep in grief.

“That kid went out our gates on a mission,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Rodney P. Grove, commandant of the small, but prestigious, Carson Long Military Institute, one of America’s oldest.

“He was more than a student here,” Grove said. “He grew up with us here. He was family.”

Those close to La Porte describe him in contradictions. A Corps of Cadets drummer who adored thrash metal. A lean-muscle beast in the gym who never showed off. A young man whose quietness could be mistaken for aloofness.

His friends knew better.

“He didn’t say much, but when he did, it was just perfect or really hilarious,” said Elizabeth Fonseca, a friend and fellow sophomore with Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets.

“Random things were on his mind. He thought a lot, but he was quiet so you had to pick him apart.”

Now both circles imagine the airman who could have been, the sharp student eyeing an Air Force intelligence career.

Making the best of it

La Porte entered Carson Long Military Institute as an uneasy middle-schooler in 1999, coming straight to the Pennsylvania boarding school from his hometown, Dumont, N.J.

“He thought he wouldn’t make it here, but he was stuck,” La Porte wrote of himself, in third-person, for a senior yearbook reflection. “He had to make the best of the situation.”

Something about the military school regimen nurtured La Porte. That nervous sixth-grader ended up graduating third in his class out of 33 students.

La Porte took on a dizzying extracurricular schedule in high school: commanding the drum corps, playing soccer and baseball, singing in glee club, making color guard and playing cello.

And yet “he didn’t really like the spotlight,” said retired Army Maj. Mark Morgan, a teacher and friend since La Porte’s early days at the school.

“He was very smart and quiet, with this dry sense of humor,” Morgan said. “You’d better stop and listen to what he said because he’d zing you real good.”

As graduation neared, La Porte secured two ROTC scholarships. One Army, one Air Force.

“I told him, ‘If you’re smart, you’ll go with the Air Force,’” said Morgan, laughing. “If he would have liked it, I could see him being a 20-year guy.”

Last image

Cadet Fonseca was in traffic eight miles from Virginia Tech’s campus, in tiny Christiansburg, Va., when La Porte unexpectedly rolled into view.

Both were in friends’ cars, idling at a stoplight. Fonseca made faces to get his attention. La Porte, first looking baffled, rolled down the window and started to chat over the humming engines.

“He was going to Wal-Mart with one of my other buds,” Fonseca said. “Then their car turned. Ours was going straight. He was talking out the window even as our car was pulling off.”

This is Fonseca’s last image of La Porte. The next day, April 16, she learned that he was among the staggering number of students killed in the unassuming three-story Norris Hall classroom building.

Inside room 211

Cho Seung-Hui entered La Porte’s intermediate French class with a pawnshop .22-caliber pistol in one hand, a new Glock 9mm in the other.

A silent and seething loner, the 23-year-old American-raised South Korean national had already killed most of the 13 students inside an advanced hydrology classroom down the hall.

According to survivors’ accounts, Cho assaulted La Porte’s class, in room 211, just as he did the others. He entered stone-faced and black-clad and, one by one, methodically fired into students.

Survivors say Cho killed the instructor, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, and at least four students. Of the surviving students, one woman was shot in the stomach and another in the abdomen. One young man, Clay Violand, saved himself by feigning dead beneath a desk.

A panicky Violand, according to The Washington Post, ordered Couture-Nowak to barricade the door with a desk. But Cho bullied through and Violand ducked beneath a different desk. He listened as the gunman put an estimated three clips’ worth of bullets into his frightened classmates.

“The room was silent except for the haunting sound of moans, some quiet crying, and someone muttering: ‘It’s OK. It’s going to be OK. They will be here soon,’” Violand told the Post.

Easing the pain

Word of La Porte’s death hit Brodie Hall, the university’s brick Corps of Cadets quarters, close to midnight.

“People started breaking down,” Cadet Nolan Faulkner said. “No one was afraid to show emotions. There was lots of shoulder-crying. He was basically a brother.”

They nicknamed him “Space Cadet.” La Porte didn’t take himself too seriously. But he nevertheless excelled, relying on the discipline instilled by military school.

La Porte was fire team leader to five or six cadets, some of them his senior.

He played with the corps’ Southern Colonels Jazz Band and the elite Highty-Tighty regimental marching band.

And on the weekend preceding his death, La Porte and Faulkner joined the Air Force Special Operations Preparatory Team, a fraternity of sorts.

“I can’t remember one time when he wasn’t holding himself to the highest of standards,” Faulkner said.

The grieving comes in waves, Fonseca said. Sometimes there are tears.

Sometimes cadets recount silly La Porte anecdotes to ease the pain.

“It’s hitting me really hard. I was just hanging out with him Sunday,” she said. “And now he’s gone.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report