The University held a Veterans Day Ceremony Tuesday that concluded a 24 hour vigil in remembrance of prisoners of war and those missing in action. The ceremony opened at 4 p.m. as the heat of the day died down, on the steps at the North side of the Rotunda.
While Veterans Day won’t take place until Nov. 11, the University’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps moved the event to an earlier date to give space to next week’s one-year anniversary of the Nov. 13 shooting on Grounds.
ROTC cadets and midshipmen — those in the Navy and Marine Corps programs — stood in attendance alongside veteran graduates of the University and faculty of the ROTC options.
ROTC units led the event, presenting the opening remarks, invocation and the POW/MIA presentation. Brig. Gen. Houston R. Cantwell, a distinguished graduate of the University’s Air Force ROTC program, was the guest speaker.
Cantwell has commanded at multiple levels in the armed forces, including for combat units in Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan and Creech Air Force Base, worked in the Pentagon and most recently served as the Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Alliance Ground Surveillance Force.
Cantwell recognized the sacrifice of veterans and their commitment to defending American values, and advised the cadets in the audience to be prepared for unexpected turns in their future, particularly relating to the role of technology in the armed forces. Encouraging flexibility and creativity, he said many future opportunities in the military do not even exist yet.
“Technology will continue to advance at a faster and faster rate,” Cantwell said. “You cadets will be tasked with synthesizing artificial intelligence into command and control and military strategy development. And if I were to guess, you’ll be asked to implement technologies we haven’t even heard of yet.”
Cantwell also expressed gratitude for the University’s support of the ROTC programs and commended the shared values between the University and the armed force, especially the University’s 2030 plan to be the best public university by the year 2030.
“President [Jim] Ryan’s commitment to be great and good resonates with me and runs parallel to military values,” Cantwell said. “I see this as a Cavalier commitment to excellence with a deliberate nod to service and integrity, very similar to our Air Force core values. Cadets, my advice — be great and good, and you’re off to a great start.”
Members of the University’s Student Veterans of America chapter were also present at the event. Ashley Vanegas, an army veteran and a fourth-year College student, said the event reminded her of those she had lost in her eight years of service.
“To come to this event, it helps put everything into perspective, like the people who came before me,” Vanegas said. “For years, they put their life on the line for all Americans to help defend their freedom and to give them peace and security while they’re here in the U.S.”
After the presentation of colors and the National Anthem, Cadet Samantha Boyles provided the welcome address.
“Today we gathered to honor all those servicemen and women who have gone before us and have dedicated their lives to the preservation of freedom in our democracy,” Boyles said. “It is noteworthy that today is also Election Day, and we can celebrate our current voice as citizens of this great nation and those who defend that same right.”
After Boyles’ welcome, the Joint Honor Guard presented the POW/MIA table, a round table with empty chairs placed at the front of the ceremony in honor of those who were unable to attend because they are prisoners of war or missing in action.
The table was covered in a white cloth to symbolize the purity of those being honored when answering the call to serve. On top of the table was a single red rose, a yellow ribbon, a slice of lemon, a pinch of salt and a lit candle, each representing those captured in foreign lands.
This symbolic memorial is common at military events and can often be found set up in the same way in base dining halls or on US Navy ships overseas, according to Toy Andrews, associate professor of Naval Science with the ROTC Naval Unit.
“While I was in Iraq, at one of the major dining facilities there was [an empty table] over there and everybody walking by it, you stop and you just give it a nod,” Andrews said. “You recognize it.”
The event closed with the folding of the flag, a 21-gun salute and the playing of Taps, a bugle song that is often played at military funerals. Andrews said that part of the ceremony is often particularly difficult for veterans in attendance.
“It’s typically one of the hardest parts of the ceremony every time, especially if you’ve had anybody that’s been through battle, any of those things, to hear Taps live,” Andrews said. “It’s tough. It’s a choker.”