Veterans Day remembrance at EMU
Evan Knappenberger, a junior at EMU and a veteran of the war in Iraq, organized a Nov. 12 remembrance with 200 pairs of military-issued boots displayed in rows in front of the central campus building at EMU, along with tags linking each pair to the deceased soldier who wore the boots in Iraq or Afghanistan. Photo by Cody Troyer.

‘Overwhelming Response’ to Veterans’ Remembrance at Pacifist EMU

In an event marking Veterans Day 2012, dozens of students, faculty, staff and visitors at Eastern Mennonite University circulated sometime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. among rows of 200 pairs of boots that had belonged to members of the U.S. armed services who died in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Response was overwhelmingly positive,” said organizer Evan Knappenberger, 27, a junior at EMU and a veteran of the war in Iraq. “The experience was emotional – many people cried – over the tragedy of the loss of these solders’ lives. The comment I heard most often was ‘thank you.””

The boots, all tagged with the deceased soldier’s name and home town in Virginia, came in all sizes and shades of black and gray – some seemed new, as if they had been dress boots, and others were scuffed and water-marked to the point of turning whitish.

Some had photos of children and spouses attached, or poems and prayers preserved in clear plastic sleeves underneath the boot soles.

All ethnicities seemed to be present. There was Humayun Khan from Bristol, whose boot bore a “wage peace button” distributed by the American Friends Service Committee. And Avaro R. Regaldo Sessarego from Virginia Beach.  Sharon T. Swartworth’s small boots had a button that read, “Recognizing Women Veterans – It’s about time!” She was from Alexandria.

Dwayne L Moore’s boots came with more documentation than most. We learned that this native of Williamsburg – “a great man of faith who loved the Lord and his family” – died on April 19, 2007, at age 31 in Iraq, leaving behind his wife and daughter (pictured), parents, and six siblings. He had been in the Army for 13 years.

Knappenberger received help in setting up and tearing down the display ­– which required a 16-foot truck to transport the boots in 32 plastic boxes from their permanent storage location in Richmond – from about 20 members of the EMU community. One of those helping was Daniela Bergen, a senior from Paraguay, who said she wanted to pitch in to show her respect to those who sacrificially served the United States, “the country giving me an education.”

In an interview the week before Veterans Day, Knappenberger said it is “typically a holiday that pays homage to veterans with parades, concerts and celebration.” Knappenberger left the army in 2007 after nearly four years of service as an enlisted man, including a year in the Iraqi war. “Sometimes it can seem like a celebration of war and militarism, more of a political event than a remembrance.  Because of this, portions of the community – especially young people and pacifists – can be left feeling alienated on this special holiday.”

Knappenberger, president of the Charlottesville chapter of Veterans for Peace, said he is working with other veterans, as well as non-veterans in the EMU community, to bridge what he calls a “cultural divide“ on matters of military service and sacrifices.

Knappenberger said veterans can feel “oppressed,” even by “traditionally pacifist people like Mennonites who have come to be afraid of us. “

“Veterans are a sacred political cow,” he added. “They are given lip-service, swept under the rug and ignored. But many veterans are also peace advocates, pacifists, scholars, and activists.

“Regardless of politics, soldiers want to serve their country, which is an honorable thing – not to kill random people in some country they’ve never heard of.  We must reach out to veterans and help them find peace.”

The Nov. 12 remembrance at EMU was called “Eyes Wide Open.”

“These boots show the human cost of war and bring to light the cultural and social oppression of veterans as a whole,” said Knappenberger, who entered EMU as a junior majoring in philosophy and theology in the fall of 2012.  “Eyes Wide Open is a powerful display of what goes on just under the surface of U.S. foreign and economic policy, and a poignant reminder of the burdens of young soldiers’ oppression in unpopular and unsuccessful wars.”


Discussion on “‘Overwhelming Response’ to Veterans’ Remembrance at Pacifist EMU

  1. An earlier version of my article attracted the following comments today (thank you three for sharing your views!):

    Mitchell Derrow says:
    November 9, 2012 at 7:34 am
    This is the best thing to happen on Campus thus far this year.

    Abbey C. says:
    November 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm
    Evan, it has been an honor getting to know you this year. Thank you for your service as a veteran and as a peacebuilder. Having family in active and past military I often feel separated from some of the pacifists here who might not understand that wanting to serve one’s country does not equate to the want to kill, or the placement on a pedestal of that by-product. I truly hope through this display that people here in this community will understand more.

    Joni Baughman says:
    November 12, 2012 at 9:40 am
    I was glad to see something like this brought to our campus. It is a reminder of lives lost for the freedom we have.l

  2. I grew up Church of The Brethren and a staunch pacifist. But then I met my husband a former Army MP. and although I still am a pacifist I understand more now that it’s more then the “war” aspect. My step son is currently serving as a Marine and I am extremely proud of him. So the military has touched my life in ways I never thought possible.
    Thank you Evan for bringing this to EMU. I just wish I had been able to see it in person.

  3. We might ponder the fact that Canadians, without going through the agony of war, gained the same freedoms we have in the USA. We might also ask whether the line, “They died for our freedom,” is at least partly a propaganda screen for killing others to establish and preserve our country’s ability to control other people, and their resources, for our own selfish interests. Case in point: our war against Mexico, which took for the U.S. nearly half of Mexico’s territory in 1848. Or our war against Iraq: To what extent did control of oil motivate our destruction of that country under the excuse of eliminating Saddam’s non-existant weapons of mass destruction?

  4. Ray,

    The idea of veterans day memorial is to show in a non-political way the cost of the war in terms of US people acknowledged by the mainstream to have died in a combat setting. The soldiers themselves, and all veterans, are a completely separate issue than the war.

    A common saying at West Point is that war is politics by other means. I would say that today, politics is war by other means. Any type of social existence in this country implicates a person into the violence of the domination system, whether you pay taxes or not, serve or not, you are reaping the benefits of empire. What people mean when they say things like “freedom isn’t free” and “they died for our freedom” is this: the “peace” that we live under is really a violence that is not yet fully realized; our lifestyle of “freedom” by which is meant basically “freedom to consume,” comes at a cost of the lives of young people.

    Most of these young people have never even been exposed to pacifism at all, and very very few (2%) join the military in order to perpetrate crimes and kill. The vast majority of soldiers enlist for economic or family reasons, and are therefore blameless when it comes to US foreign policy. This is the beef which mainstream America has with pacifists, that they blame the victims of war who happen to be uniformed for the war itself. This is a halfway-legitimate beef, and is easily manipulated by right-wing ideologues into a false dynamic whereby “they hate us for our freedom” and “they hate the troops.”

    If America is ever going to overcome our penchant for starting unnecessary and dirty wars, we have to realize that it is veterans and troops who will be leading the way, not pacifists. The only legitimate thing for pacifists to do is to support the military community and slowly expose them to Christian love and nonviolence. The overwhelming pacifist response to wars is something like “when they all adopt our pacifist views, there will be peace.” Veterans as the most-consistently oppressed group in US history are marginalized: if they would have listened to us in the first place, this would have never happened.

    Those of us who have been sufficiently exposed to both war and Christian nonviolence usually choose the latter. You cannot, cannot, cannot work to undermine the ideals which the military utilizes to recruit kids. Service, discipline, community are good things that are present in the military. Attacking these concepts, couched as they are in “freedom isn’t free” language is worse than ineffective, it drives a militarist backlash. If you flat out call it propaganda, all pacifism will get marginalized.

    I would encourage you to think about this a little. Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, and John baptized a Roman soldier. There is the potential for good in every human being, especially in soldiers. You simply cannot ignore them, question their deepest values flippantly, or denigrate the language they use to try to ascribe a type of meaningfulness to their oppression. It was perceived to have happened to Vietnam veterans, and that is why they are angry with “hippies, commies, and pacifists.”

    Peace will be made by veterans and by soldiers, with the support of Christian non-violence theology. Peace will never come with the self-righteous refusal to see soldiers and veterans as anything but sorely oppressed and wonderful human beings.


  5. I appreciate this a lot. I grew up in the Mennonite church and I’ve come to realize that in general it tends to overlook the sacrificial attitudes soldiers have when going off to war. I think it’s important to recognize that selflessness and bravery. Thank you for this and for your service to this country.

  6. Thanks for putting this on. As a veteran, I sometimes feel overlooked or excluded by the EMU community. We can honor veterans for their commitment and sacrifice without glorifying war. The sacrifices of veterans and their families should not be overlooked, regardless of one’s moral or political stance. Those who have suffered through the trauma of war especially need our support. thanks….

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