Memorial Day is the occasion each year when we commemorate Americans who paid the ultimate price as members of our armed forces and salute all veterans, past and present, who have served their country honorably.
I can still recall the first veteran I came to know personally. His name was John Slattery, and he was newly returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam. I was a high school student and the head altar boy at St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Boston. John’s role was less clear. He was always around, taking care of all sorts of odd jobs, even though the parish had a capable head of maintenance.
I don’t remember thinking it strange, though it surely was, that John lived in the church basement, rather than in an apartment or with his parents. I do recall his gratitude to the “landlord,” Fr. Tom Herlihy. The crusty old Irish pastor had a heart of gold and a voice that morphed into a rich brogue when he sang “Galway Bay” at Mass to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
John didn’t say much about his relationship with his parents, nor did he ever really talk about “the Nam,” as he called that strange jungle land where he had served in the Marines. He prided himself on being laid back, but I knew he was anxious and intense underneath, plagued by bad dreams. No one talked about PTSD in those days.
When not working, John wrote poetry and played records in the church boiler room. As the only son of a single mother, residing with his grandparents, I lived a sheltered life. But John opened my eyes and my mind. He talked politics, made me into a temporary poet and kindled a life-long love of rock ‘n’ roll.
We sat in row 7 to see The Who, my first concert. When at the end Pete Townsend smashed every piece of equipment, I solemnly announced I would never forget that night. I haven’t.
I now realize that John permanently influenced the way I view veterans. During my college years, when I became an anti-war activist, I recoiled in disgust when fellow protestors castigated those returning from service. Unlike my friends and me, they had not had the shelter of student deferments. Some were patriots, even if I saw things differently. In any event, they were not the problem. Our leaders were.
Most baby boomers, and those older, recognize that the indifference and, often, scorn shown Vietnam veterans was a historic national failure. That is why strong support for those returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere provides a redemptive moment for the national conscience as well as an opportunity simply to do what is right.
Our veterans need and deserve first-rate medical care to achieve psychological and physical recovery. They need leaders like Alvernia’s May commencement speaker, Vice Admiral Matthew Nathan, who directs such efforts as Surgeon General of the Navy.
Our veterans also need and deserve educational opportunities and caring support to begin or resume their collegiate studies. They need universities committed to helping them successfully pursue their dreams.
In a few short years, Alvernia University has become an emerging national leader in the education and support of veterans. Ours is a mission-centered initiative, faithful to the commitment of our foundresses, the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters, to serve those most in need of educational opportunity . . . sons and daughters of coal miners, working women returning to school, local cops and inner city youth, and now our veterans.
At a recent ceremony, attended by many of our student-veterans, we announced plans to open a Veterans Center on campus in the fall, made possible by a generous commitment from a trustee and proud veteran, Carl J. Anderson, Jr., and his wife, Debbie. The center will include gathering spaces for veterans and will be a hub for counseling, financial aid and other university resources. These services will be enhanced by expansion of our invaluable partnership with the Veterans Administration. We aim to more than double the large number of veterans already studying at Alvernia.
As always, Memorial Day will be an occasion to honor the sacrifice of our fallen veterans. May it also be an occasion to reflect on veterans, like John Slattery and Matt Nathan, who have touched our lives. And may it prompt public officials and all of us to help ensure the services and opportunities owed to a new generation of veterans.
The Office of the President Staff
Assistant to the President
Francis Hall, Room 212
Francis Hall, Room 212
Mon - Fri 8:00 am – 4:30 pm