Alumnus gives life for U.S.A.

Harini Shyamsundar

Matthew Axelson dies in Afghanistan. This story was first published by El Estoque in Volume 37, Issue 1, Sept. 23, 2005.

On a familiar cul-de-sac in Cupertino, all seven houses display American flags as the wind gently lifts the banners, briefly imbuing them with a temporal life as they unfurl and wave. In the backyard of the well-kept house on the corner, next to a pile of firewood, a rusty, be-speckled two-door Triumph waits to be restored among the leaves, under a gray tarp.

Within the house, in a living room filled with family photos, Cordell Axelson thoughtfully said of the car, “We were going to rebuild it when he came home. In fact, on Father’s Day he ordered a big manual for me, for us I should say, that we were going to use when we rebuilt it.”

It was only nine days after that Father’s Day that Cordell’s son, Matthew Axelson, died on June 28, while on a mission for the US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan. The mission, known as Operation Red Wing, took the lives of eleven soldiers, the highest death toll for a SEALs operation since World War II.

His father said of him, “He was just a typical guy that loved to be with his friends … he was not a blabbermouth for sure. He didn’t want to be the center of attention. He [was] very modest and very intelligent and physically and mentally he could do anything he wanted to. He was a great guy to talk to.”

The Axelson family used to raise St. Bernards. In one litter, a puppy was born with a black patch over its eye, an undesirable coloration for St. Bernards purebreds.

“Matt said, ‘This is the one I want.’ When we asked why, he said ‘Because no one else would want it,’” said Donna Axelson, Matt’s mother.

Matt was part of the graduating of 1994 at MVHS. Though to many students, the war on terror seems quite distant, glimpsing only brief events through impersonal television news pieces, Matt’s death has brought the war home for many. Although his heroic death was quite extraordinary, his life was strikingly similar to those of many current students. Matt walked through the same halls we do everyday, shared the same interests, and even learned from our same teachers.

Spanish teacher Maria Coughlin, who taught Matt, said of him, “He always sat in the front row. He was quiet, shy, but when called on, he always had an answer. He had a wonderful smile and a good hearty laugh.”

Besides helping to found Monta Vista’s golf team, Matt was also a member of the Madrigals, an all-senior singing group.

After graduating from Monta Vista, Matt enrolled at the California State University at Chico, where he obtained a degree in political science. A year after receiving this degree, Matt decided to join the Navy SEALs. Axelson grew up with relatives on both sides of his family in the armed services. While attending college in Chico, Matt often went south to San Diego take courses there while living with his older brother, Jeff. It was in San Diego that both the brothers were inspired by their mutual friend to the Navy SEALs.

The elite troops captivated both Matt and Jeff. Matt ended up joining the SEALS after immense training, while Jeff had to stay back because of an injury. Becoming a SEAL was indeed a great achievement for Matt. On average, out of a class of 140-160 soldiers, only 20-30 actually become SEALs.

Donna Axelson said, “I couldn’t believe that my gentle, soft-spoken, quiet little boy would be doing all of these dangerous and challenging kinds of things.”

Matt was stationed in Pearl Harbor when his troop was deployed to Afghanistan at the end of April. In conversations with his parents and wife, Cindy Ogi, Matt could only say he was working, as he details of his missions were highly classified.

Cordell Axelson said that if Matt “had lived through the episode that took his life, we probably would have never known about it.”

In a commendation letter, the Secretary of the Navy, Gordon England, said, “Petty Officer Axelson advised the teammate closest to him to escape while he provided cover fire. A champion of freedom, petty Officer Axelson will be remembered for his self-sacrificing actions.”

Matt was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal, the third highest military award for heroism in battle, as well as the Purple Heart.

Numerous ceremonies have been held to commemorate Matt’s life. By order of the governor, all the flags in California were flown at half-mast on Jul. 13. Additionally, Matt’s wife and friends in Chico will be organizing a yearly charity golf tournament in honor of Matt.

Many locals have rallied around Matt’s memory. The City of Cupertino is contemplating a free-standing memorial in Memorial Park, with fundraising and community meetings beginning in November, around Veteran’s Day.

On the court where the Axelsons’ live, all of their neighbors have put up American flags.

Cordell Axelson said of one neighbor, “He never thought about flying a flag at his house, but after Matt was killed, he bought one and he said, ‘I’m going to fly it forever in Matt’s honor.’”

“He was just 29 and three days when he died, but he certainly had a full, adventurous life. He got to do things that not a lot of people dream of doing and never get to do,” Donna Axelson said.

In the months to come, Cordell will be keeping his promise to Matt by fixing up the old Triumph that was to be their father-son project. Cordell will be joined by Matt’s father-in-law, the two remembering Matt as they finish restoring the car though in his absence, in his honor.