Sunday, November 11, 2007

When Words Fail

Last Tuesday I posted Duke Ignores Its Brave Defenders.

The post included extracts from Duke senior Kristin Butler’s beautifully written and extensively researched Chronicle column calling attention to Duke’s shameful disregard of the University’s men and woman who’ve served in our military, including those who made the supreme sacrifice.

I said I was posting mainly to alert readers to Butler’s column and promised to comment further in a few days.

I’ve not posted comments yet because each draft post has been inadequate to the importance of the subject Butler placed before us – and not just those of us who are Dukies, but all Americans and citizens of other lands whose lives are more secure and better because of the service and sacrifice of our military.

I’m working on a draft now I hope to have ready tomorrow. In the meantime, I want to place Butler’s entire column before you for your own reading and in the hope you will copy and share it with others lest we forget.

Here’s Kristin’s column:

When the rest of the country pauses to honor America's military personnel (both living and dead) next Monday, Duke University won't join in.

There will be no on-campus remembrances a la 9/11 or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Classes will proceed as normal. Even our University calendar-which advertises activities like an open house tour for the Home Depot Smart Home Nov. 12-makes no mention of the occasion.

Considering how much we have to honor, that sort of neglect is a University-wide disgrace.

Veterans Day at Duke should be a time to acknowledge the service of thousands of former soldiers receiving treatment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, to remember our brave classmates serving overseas and, most important of all, to pay tribute to the thousands of selfless alumni who fought and died for our country in times of war.

Excuses abound for Duke's current policies, among them the difficulty of fitting federal holidays into a jam-packed academic year. But the thought that this University-with its thriving ROTC programs and relatively large numbers of alumni in uniform-does so little to recognize former students' courage and sacrifice is all but inconceivable.

As we edge toward national Veterans Day festivities, there is still time to end a larger cycle of broken promises at Duke.

Let's start with the sorry state of our physical tributes to the fallen. At present, Duke has only one war memorial, a low wall dedicated to alumni killed in World War II.

When it was built many decades ago, this humble remembrance stood against a grassy hill along the right side of the Chapel (recall that there was no Bryan Center, no engineering campus and no research labs behind West Campus back then).

Today, with the encroachment of the Westbrook Building and Goodson Chapel, the fixture stands as little more than an airshaft between large buildings. It appears on no campus map, is absent from guided tours and remains unnoticed by longtime students, faculty and employees alike.

Over the past three years, I walked by that wall more than 500 times before noticing its purpose, largely assuming that it prevented soil erosion or honored Divinity School donors.

And it's not just the wall's low profile that rankles, either. Before this monument was dedicated in September 1993 (following an unexplained delay of more than 40 years), administrators announced that it would "bear the names of those students killed in World War II and subsequent wars."

In the 14 years since, not a single name has been added, leaving soldiers killed in Korea, Vietnam and both Gulf Wars wholly without tribute.

Meanwhile, Duke administrators went on to effectively re-sell the University's only other war monument less than two years later. Donated in 1922, the Alumni Memorial Gym stood in honor of Trinity students who died in World War I for more than 70 years.

But by the mid-1990s, the structure had become decrepit, prompting officials to rename it the Keith and Brenda Brodie Recreation Center in exchange for repairs and expansions. That Duke's tribute to fallen WWI alumni is one of only a handful of buildings on campus to ever meet this fate says something troubling about our institutional priorities.

For perspective, it's worth noting that this level of indifference is by no means common among our peers.

Recognizing the need for this type of unified, appropriate tribute two years ago, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill officials raised $300,000 to expand their existing Memorial Hall into a tribute that acknowledges "these people were here, and now they're lost." Other institutions scatter smaller remembrances throughout their campuses, grouping the fallen by conflict.

No matter which tactic Duke favors, there is a clear need to do better by our war dead. Heroes like Lt. Charles "Buddy" Mason, a 1964 graduate who was killed in Vietnam in 1967, have waited more than 40 years for a place where friends can properly remember his "gracious" spirit.

Others, like Sgt. James J. Regan, a standout men's lacrosse player who died last February in northern Iraq, underscore the importance of a space where current students can mourn a classmate described as "a best friend to everyone he knew."

A proper memorial will not make these untimely deaths any less tragic, just as on-campus observances will never repay the debt we all owe living veterans. But such efforts do show our collective gratitude for the sacrifices made by our classmates in uniform, along with our respect for the contributions they've made to the University.

This Veterans Day, let's channel our admiration for Duke's current and former soldiers into a tradition that is finally worthy of their service.


Anonymous said...

The vietnam Memorial is a place to help with the grief of death of a lover one. A Memorial at Duke would do the same. Can not imagine that Duke does not have one. rest in Peace Jimmy Reagan.