When a mass shooter began working his way through Virginia Tech's Norris Hall on April 16, 2007, methodically murdering students and faculty members, the professor in Room 211 told her students to get down and take cover behind desks at the back of the class.
But one did not. Air Force ROTC Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadet Matthew La Porte instead went to the front of the room, where he used a large, heavy desk to barricade the door to try to keep the shooter out.
Cadet Matthew La Porte, one of the 32 students and faculty killed during the April 16, 2007, shooting at Virginia Tech.
Photo Credit: Air Force
La Porte gave his own life trying to defend his classmates -- one of 32 students and faculty members killed that day. And on April 9, nearly eight years after his sacrifice, La Porte was posthumously honored with the Airman's Medal in a ceremony in Blacksburg, Virginia.
The award was based on interviews with survivors who testified to his heroism and on forensic evidence such as where La Porte's body was found in relation to where the shooter was, and on interviews with survivors who testified to his heroism.
"When the shooter subsequently forced his way into the classroom, Cadet La Porte, with complete disregard for his own safety, unhesitatingly charged the shooter in an aggressive attempt to stop him, drawing heavy fire at close range, and sustaining seven gunshot wounds," according to the citation, which the Virginia Tech ROTC provided to Air Force Times. "Cadet La Porte's actions helped save lives by slowing down the shooter and by taking fire that would have been directed at his classmates. He sacrificed his own life in an attempt to save others."
The 20-year-old La Porte was a sophomore from Dumont, New Jersey, studying political science. He attended Virginia Tech on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, and hoped to be an intelligence officer in the Air Force. He was a fire team leader in his company who was responsible for four other cadets each day.
La Porte also played tenor drum for the Highty-Tighties regimental band, and was a member of the cadet jazz band the Southern Colonels.
"Considerate and mature, Matt was a cadet with unlimited potential who loved a challenge," his biography on Virginia Tech's memorial website said. "He was working hard to prepare for Air Force ROTC summer field training, a 28-day leadership evaluation."
In a telephone conversation April 14, Col. Cameron Torrens, the commander of Air Force ROTC Detachment 875 at Virginia Tech, said that one of La Porte's instructors – retired Lt. Col. Keith Gay, the assistant professor of aerospace studies – led the charge to honor him. But the process of piecing together the events of the chaotic shooting ended up taking many years.
Torrens said Gay first suspected La Porte had tried to stop the shooter after first responders said the position of his body suggested "something was different with him." But counselors trying to treat the survivors wouldn't let Gay talk to witnesses until about two or three years later.
Gay conducted most of the research after he retired in 2010, Torrens said, interviewing witnesses when he had time and gathering additional evidence. When Gay had enough proof that La Porte had displayed "exemplary courage and heroism," as the citation said, he submitted the application, which took another few months to be approved.
Torrens said he received La Porte's medal last summer, and began coordinating with his mother, Barbara La Porte, to have the ceremony in front of the Corps of Cadets, the ROTC, friends, family and alumni.
The entire Corps of Cadets marched from the Virginia Tech campus, through downtown Blacksburg, to La Porte's grave at Westview Cemetery, where his medal was officially awarded.
Cadet Matthew La Porte's gravestone at Westview Cemetery in Blacksburg, Va.
Photo Credit: Logan Wallace/Virginia Tech