IRVINE -- Professor Ken Ebel used to sit on his porch with Matthew V. Thompson and three other students discussing life, books, girlfriends and love over beers.
Such a dialogue continued even after Thompson graduated from Concordia University Irvine and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2011, said Ebel, who retired from the school last year as a biology professor. Thompson hosted a Bible study for his fellow soldiers, discussing with them how to be a man of God while fighting in a war, he wrote in an email to Ebel dated Aug. 9.
"He was dealing with violence, dealing with evil, and how do you bring love in that situation," Ebel said. "He wanted to be a man of God in the situation where he found himself in a violent world. That's been Matt ever since I knew him."
That email would be the last time Ebel heard from Thompson. The 28-year-old Green Beret was killed by a roadside bomb on Aug. 23 in Afghanistan.
Ebel was among more than 100 people who gathered at the Concordia campus Monday morning for a flag-lowering ceremony. Campus security guards raised the flag to the top and then slowly lowered it to half-staff. The flag will remain there for the rest of the week to remember and honor Thompson.
Thompson, a special forces medical sergeant, was patrolling in Helmand province as part of Operation Freedom Sentinel when an improvised explosive device detonated. Thompson died from his injuries.
He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
Thompson, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in theological studies in December 2010, is believed to be the first Concordia University Irvine alum killed in military service, said Steve Leader, the school's veterans resource center manager.
Thompson came to Southern California in 2008 after he transferred to Concordia from Marquette University in Wisconsin.
Josh Geisinger has known him since the first day Thompson arrived at Concordia. He was among those who used to chat on Ebel's porch and called Thompson by his nickname, Tito.
"Tito's a kind of guy that if you'd never met him before, he would come and sit with you and have a meal with you, even if you didn't know him," Geisinger said. "He wanted to love people as they needed to be loved -- not what was convenient, not what was easy, but what took sacrifice, what took courage. He was very good at loving people."
Life was always an adventure for Thompson, Geisinger said. One time, they took a group of students on a hike up Mount Whitney after the first snow.
Thompson led the group, with Geisinger right behind him. Without any proper gear, Thompson slipped on ice every few steps for about two miles, but Geisinger caught him each time until they reached the summit. There was only joy in Thompson's eyes and no fear, Geisinger said.
Their friendship was about pushing each other, he said.
"Whenever I was going through a decision, it seemed difficult at the time, but you talk to Tito and he's like, 'You know what to do, you know what's important. You just don't want to do the hard thing,'" Geisinger said. "It was like, 'You're right.'"
Thompson chose to serve in the special forces because he wanted to try something he wasn't sure he could accomplish, challenging himself physically, mentally and emotionally, Geisinger said.
Thompson met his wife, Rachel, at Concordia. The two got married five years ago just before Thompson started his military training.
"He knew it would be difficult, but he wanted that growth, he wanted that challenge so that he knew what it meant to have pain and knew what it meant to sacrifice," Geisinger said.
Thompson's wife lives in Washington state and couldn't attend Concordia's ceremony on Monday.
Thompson was posthumously awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, according to the U.S. Army. Other decorations he had earned included the Army Commendation Medal and National Defense Service Medal.
The deployment was Thompson's first to Afghanistan. He had previously been in Iraq for Operation Inherent Resolve.
Upon hearing of Thompson's death, Ebel, Geisinger and the other members from the porch dialogue got together to talk about their friend over beers and Wisconsin bratwursts.
"I hope that we all become more like Matt," Geisinger said.