Memorializing Duke's War Dead

January 31, 2010
Recognizing veterans: Shinseki, top center, spoke of alumni courage and dedication

Recognizing veterans: Shinseki, top center, spoke of alumni courage and dedication. Chris Hildreth

This October, Duke honored alumni who died while on active military duty with a rededicated campus memorial. The names of fifty-four men and women who gave their lives, many of them in wars in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq, were added to the existing wall that was installed in 1993 to honor the sacrifice of Duke's 236 World War II dead.

In Memorial Quad, which is sheltered between Duke Chapel and Duke Divinity School, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki A.M. '76 spoke to the assembled students, faculty and staff members, and families of the fallen at a rededication ceremony. "From a distance, these engraved names look alike," he said. But each is "a profound statement of love, patriotism, and loyalty" to the families and friends who cared about the individuals being honored.

The university and the Duke Alumni Association (DAA) organized the event to pay tribute to alumni who lost their lives in active duty since World War II. After receiving information from family members or friends of the soldiers, DAA staff members submitted detailed forms requesting verifying information from the National Personnel Records Center.

Recognizing veterans:

Recognizing veterans: Chapel Quad was locus for memorial dedication. Les Todd

The association also spent months identifying those who had attended two or more consecutive semesters in a degree-granting program at Duke and worked with military authorities to verify the names of those servicemen and servicewomen who died in active duty according to the military's classification.

The process was challenging—some submissions lacked key information such as Social Security numbers, for example—and took more than three years to complete. Because of the importance of the work, great care was taken to ensure accuracy and inclusiveness.

"The process was slower than we would have liked," says Rachael Wheatley, special-programs coordinator for the DAA. "But seeing the families and knowing how much this meant to them made it all worthwhile." She adds that "while we have done everything we can to gather an exhaustive list of alumni, we will inevitably have additions to the memorial over time." DAA and university officials are currently drafting guidelines for this procedure.

"The names on this wall personify duty, honor, courage, and service to something larger than self," said Shinseki. He spoke at the ceremony after touring the Durham VA Medical Center and before meeting with Duke students who are either in the ROTC program or who are attending the university under VA-sponsored programs, such as the new Post-9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program.

"Duke has many distinguished alumni, but I'd argue that the names on this memorial represent the most distinguished," Shinseki said at the ceremony. "They represent extraordinary courage and dedication in the face of great adversity. This memorial affirms that free people can bend history in the direction of our best hopes, and ensure that their service and sacrifice will never be forgotten."

"Taps" was played as the ceremony ended. Then family members and friends passed quietly by the wall, running their fingers across the names of those they still remember. Kathy Mason Haskell B.S.N.'60, who came from Annapolis, Maryland, to honor her brother, Charles Mason '64, who died in Vietnam, said simply, "It was very touching."