Student Casualties of Iraq

For the first time since Vietnam era, many campuses consider what to do when one of their own dies in a faraway war.
May 19, 2006

David Veverka had been on track to receive a bachelor's degree in wildlife ecology this month at the University of Maine.

But he had to miss the spring semester when the Army reservist was called up this year and sent to Iraq, where a roadside bombing killed him -- just over a week before graduation ceremonies in Orono. The university observed a moment of silence in his memory on graduation day, and awarded him his degree posthumously, presenting it at his funeral the next day.

Veverka -- a fraternity brother, a research assistant, a volunteer with local schoolchildren -- was popular and well known on campus. And he was the first Maine student killed in wartime since Vietnam. "Any time a student dies, it's a shocking and unexpected tragedy," said Robert Dana, dean of students at Maine. "But when someone dies serving our country, that's an added focus."

Maine is quite typical in that it doesn't have much experience in dealing with such deaths. Just last week, Western Michigan University was holding a memorial service for Matthew Webber, a junior and a member of the National Guard who died in April, months after being injured in an explosion. He was the first wartime fatality for the university since Vietnam.

There have been more than 2,400 military fatalities in Iraq since the start of the war, and it's unclear how many of those people were students. Most lists of the dead include their home towns and service records and many students in the military are enrolled part time so their primary identity may not be as a student. Many campuses are also deeply affected by deaths of young alumni in Iraq, many of them people just a year or two out of college and with close connections still there. As the war continues, more colleges -- some of them with deep military traditions to draw on and others without -- are considering how to honor their war dead and how to help the grieving.

Students have been among the war dead in Iraq from the beginning of the U.S. invasion, in 2003. In the first week, Evan T. James, a Marine reservist who had been a sophomore at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, was killed. James aspired to be a personal trainer and his family created a scholarship at Southern Illinois, in his memory, for similar students. Another early casualty, just weeks later, was Joseph B. Maglione, a junior at Drexel University, who has also been honored with a scholarship. So was one of the first graduate students killed. David Travis Friedrich was three courses shy of a master's degree in forensic science at the University of New Haven when he was killed in September 2003. The scholarship in his memory will give out its first award this fall.

Iraq deaths have also prompted many institutions to return to campus memorials to the dead from previous wars. The Palomar Community College District, in California, created a memorial during the Vietnam War and last year added the names of seven students and recent alumni who were killed in Iraq. Several more deaths since then mean that the monument -- a granite wall with a flag -- will need to be updated again.

Two deaths from Iowa State University are the first wartime casualties since Vietnam and have prompted plans for an addition to the Gold Star Hall in the Memorial Union. The student union was opened in 1928 as a place for students and also as a memorial to the war dead of World War I, honored in the hall. (During World War I, families put blue stars in their windows for family members who were in the military, and changed those stars to gold for family members who were killed in the war.) Since then, names were also added for students and alumni who died in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The university is committed to adding names from Iraq, but is holding off on doing so because it wants to follow past practice, and add the names when the war is over.

Several universities with active military ties and cadet corps -- including the Citadel, Norwich University, Texas A&M University, and the Virginia Military Institute -- have thus far escaped student casualties (but not alumni deaths).VMI sends honor guards to the funerals of its alumni, eight of whom have died in Iraq. Virginia Tech, which also has a Corps of Cadets, has had ceremonies in each of the last three years to add names to a memorial (see photograph above) to those who have died in wars.

"It's important that we recognize the sacrifice those gentlemen made for us," said Rock Roszak, a retired Air Force colonel who is director of alumni relations for the corps at Virginia Tech. To the many students who will enter active service upon graduation, he said, these ceremonies "bring home the seriousness of the business they are preparing for."

For campuses without established war memorials, much depends on whether someone steps forward to organize a way to honor a student who died.

At Western Michigan, Dori LaChance, the lead registration clerk, has unofficially become the point person for providing support to students who are in Iraq -- she knows of 15 and suspects there are a few more. Because LaChance helps students with veterans' benefits and with the process of preparing for military-related leaves, she got to know those who are in the military. With a volunteer team, she organizes efforts to send holiday packages to the contingent.

So when one of those students died last month, she organized a memorial service. "This was really a shock to all of us," she said.

Dealing with that shock also falls to campuses.

Dana, the dean of students at Maine, said that as soon as the institution learned of Veverka's death, officials quickly identified all the academic and social circles in which he moved so that counselors could reach out to students and faculty members and involve them in scheduling a campus memorial.

"It's absolutely critical that when a student death occurs, people don't underestimate the impact. People need to find ways to express their feelings and work through grief," he said.

Even in an era when students are politically divided over (or indifferent about) the war, and in which students aren't known for a respect for tradition, there are signs that the death of students in wartime has an impact -- perhaps even more so because the end of the draft means that many students need not think about the war, except when it hits home.

At Iowa State, the Gold Star Hall is located by one of the main entrances to the student union, and so the area is full of students who are much more likely to be headed to the food court than to pause and reflect. Kathy Svec, marketing coordinator for the student union there, said that prior to the war in Iraq, the idea of the student union as a memorial "went out of style" and most students walking by the list of names "probably just assumed that they were big donors -- I don't think people got it."

After the war started, a student came to the student union's managers and asked to have a sign put up at the doorways that lead students into the union, through Gold Star Hall. The sign asks people to remove their hats out of a sign of respect. Somewhat to her initial surprise, Svec said, "many students now actually take off their hats when walking by."


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