With Army soldiers at his side, Joseph Hennigan led his family across the sun-baked tarmac at Henderson Executive Airport Thursday for the honorable transfer of his son’s flag-draped casket.
It was a moment he had dreaded to think about ever since a casualty assistance officer had shown up at his doorstep in Barrington, Ill., last week.
He knew immediately what the colonel was about to tell him: that his 20-year-old son, Sgt. Matthew R. Hennigan, had been killed. The 2007 Silverado High School graduate was shot by enemy machine gunfire June 30 in Afghanistan.
"I’m devastated, as one can expect," Joseph Hennigan said, as he waited for the twin-engine, Falcon 20 jet to arrive. "I’m so very proud of Matt. He was a great kid and a very fine young man.
"When he decided to join the Army he was 16 years old. We had to sign for him. We were apprehensive," he said, referring to Matthew’s mother, Suzanne Hennigan, of Las Vegas.
A year later, after he graduated from high school, he joined with his parent’s consent at age 17.
"I asked him a couple more times. ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ Then when they showed up at my door … the first thought that went through my mind was that I signed his death warrant. But he died doing what he wanted to do," Joseph Hennigan said. "I’m very proud. He was a great son. He is a hero."
When Matthew Hennigan posed for his Army photo as a specialist wearing a maroon beret and an airborne "sky soldier" patch on his left shoulder, the young man sported a wide smile not typical of paratrooper photos. That smile could launch a million ships, his father said, and it was indicative that Matthew was happy and proud to be in the 173rd Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Bamberg, Germany.
Tom Hansen, who married Matthew’s grandmother, Barbara Diulus, said the main reason Matthew joined the Army was to get a four-year college education.
In high school athletics, he specialized in wrestling and lettered four years, making the varsity team as a freshman. In his senior year in the Sunrise Region tournament, he won third place in the 189-pound weight class with four wins and one loss.
"He was a tough kid," his dad said.
Matthew Robert Hennigan was born Sept. 21, 1989 in Evanston, Ill. He moved to Las Vegas in 1995 and later attended Schofield Middle School and Silverado High. He was a catcher in Little League baseball.
Joseph Hennigan said his son loved the Army and life in general and lived it to the fullest. He added that his son was "real tight" with the soldiers in his unit.
"This kid was a pistol," he said. "He was taking care of his brothers in arms. I truly believe that."
Joseph Hennigan spent time with him on Matthew’s leave in Las Vegas before he deployed for Afghanistan this year on his first tour in Operation Enduring Freedom.
"I was able to love him, hug him, kiss him. That’s what I’m running on now," he said. "Our hearts are shattered.
"You live on faith and on true belief that they’re over there to protect us over here."
Joseph Hennigan said the Army is still unraveling the details about the ambush that killed his son in Tangi Valley of Wardak province, west of Kabul. Some of the answers won’t be known for weeks or months, he said.
What he does know is that Matthew died at Forward Operating Base Shank from machine-gun bullet wounds he received when his platoon was attacked while on patrol.
He was the only U.S. soldier killed in the ambush and was recommended for the Bronze Star medal and promoted to sergeant posthumously.
"He earned it. He wasn’t given this," his father said, describing how a review board had approved the rank promotion. "His words to me were, ‘I aced it.’ "
Joseph Hennigan, who never served in the military, said his nephew, Erik Hennigan, is currently serving 40 miles from where Matthew died at Forward Operating Base Shank.
Matthew Hennigan’s platoon leader, Chief Warrant Officer-2 Eric Mayo, said in a news release that Matthew "grew from a wet-behind-the-ears boy into the most disciplined and dedicated soldier that I’ve served with in a long time.
"I could not have asked for a better man to serve in my platoon. Matt was the best in us all and we will all feel his loss in our hearts forever."
Spc. Tyler Zick described Matt, his Company B comrade, as "the best friend a guy could ask for. He was always up to spend time with the guys and was a really positive influence on all the soldiers in Germany who were so far away from home."
According to the news release from the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Matthew Hennigan was a human intelligence collector who served in the Army for two years, 11 months.
His awards include the Purple Heart medal; Army Achievement medal; Army Good Conduct medal; National Defense Service medal; Afghanistan Campaign medal; Global War on Terrorism Service medal; Army Service ribbon; Overseas Service ribbon; NATO medal; the Combat Action Badge, and the Parachutist Badge.
He is survived by his father, Joseph Hennigan, of Barrington, Ill.; mother, Suzanne Hennigan; and brothers, Joseph, James and Edward Hennigan, all of the Las Vegas Valley.
A public viewing will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday at Palm Mortuary, 7600 S. Eastern Ave., Las Vegas. A funeral service followed by burial at the same location will begin 1 p.m. Sunday.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.