On April 16, 2007, Matthew La Porte was in his French class at Virginia Tech as Seung Hui Cho attempted to force his way inside, armed. La Porte's teacher told the students to hide at the back of the classroom, but La Porte, a 20-year-old Air Force cadet, ran to help barricade the door, the Washington Post reports. When Cho got inside, "La Porte, in complete disregard for his own safety, unhesitatingly charged the shooter ... drawing heavy fire at close range and sustaining seven gunshot wounds," retired Air Force Lt. Col. Keith Gay said Thursday, as relatives, military officials, and 1,300 cadets gathered at La Porte's grave in Virginia, Virginia Tech's Collegiate Times reports. "He sacrificed his own life in an attempt to save others." Eight years later, that act has earned La Porte—one of 32 students, faculty, and staff members to die in the Virginia Tech massacre—the Airman's Medal, the Air Force's highest award for heroism outside of enemy combat.
What he did "was not what I think the average person would do," a commander says. But determining La Porte's eligibility for the award wasn't easy. "There are various criteria associated with the award, and one of them is that it has to be justified by eyewitness statements," Gay said. Only six people made it out of Room 211 of Norris Hall alive. "It was hard to get in touch with them," Gay said. But "it was my duty. I was one of his officers." In December 2013, he submitted witness statements, evidence from first responders, and a letter from the mother of La Porte's classmate Heidi Miller, who was shot three times but survived. The request received a stamp of approval in September. "I believe that because of Matt's actions, that's one of the reasons my daughter is alive—because he was willing to guard the door," Lolly Miller said. "It allowed some of the people in that room to make their own decision about what to do to save their own life." (Read more Virginia Tech massacre stories.)