Uncanny connection brings pride for cadet from Holland on Veterans Day and beyond
A Dutch high school basketball player, Tom Koopman, received a call from a Citadel athletics recruiter in 2013 asking him to consider a full basketball scholarship to attend an American military college called The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Koopman had never heard of the college which was very far away from his home in Holland, but eventually he accepted the offer, matriculated as a freshman in August of 2013 and began playing for the Bulldogs. The 6’8 center is now a senior, a successful cadet and a leader on the team.
“This was the start of something unique. I learned from the recruiter that The Citadel was a military college, but until you are here experiencing it, it’s hard to understand just how special this place is,” said Koopman. “It was quite the struggle in the beginning, but as cadets develop, they begin to see the bigger picture and understand the value of earning a place in the South Carolina Corps of Cadets.”
Koopman received his coveted Citadel ring in October during Parents’ Weekend. His father, Patrick, flew to Charleston from their home in Baarlo, Holland, to celebrate the achievement with his son. But before the Koopmans walked through the symbolic giant gold ring, they had something special in hand that would connect their family with the college from decades earlier.
“The first time I pieced this together it gave me goosebumps,” said Roger Long, chairman of The Citadel Memorial Europe Foundation and member of The Citadel Class of 1989. The foundation’s office is in Heythuysen, Netherlands, which is where Long lives. The foundation works to honor and remember Citadel men who died in Europe and North Africa in the service of their nation.
“One evening during Cadet Koopman’s sophomore year, his father sent me a photo of grave adoption certificates of two American soldiers assigned to his uncle decades ago. I immediately recognized the name of Sgt. Edward G. Cherry, Jr., Class of 1946, and couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Long explained that a U.S. military cemetery at Margraten, Netherlands, is one of 20 American cemeteries in Europe and North Africa (along with two British Commonwealth cemeteries) that contains the remains of more than 100,000 war dead, 47 of whom attended The Citadel. Eight Citadel alumni are buried at Margraten. A man named Nico Baggen was among the thousands of Dutch citizens in 1946 who volunteered to care for the graves of American soldiers killed in action during World War II to honor their sacrifices. Seventy years ago, Citadel alumnus, Sgt. Edward Cherry’s grave was one of two randomly assigned to Baggen.
For decades, Baggen and his sister, Anneke, visited the grave to lay flowers in remembrance of Cherry’s sacrifice, often on America’s Memorial Day. It turns out that many years later, Baggen’s great nephew Tom Koopman would eventually attend The Citadel, knowing nothing about his uncle’s quiet generosity and connection to the college.
“Sgt. Cherry was part of the 406th Infantry Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division. He was originally from North Carolina and died at a field hospital near Krefeld, Germany, on March 15, 1945, from wounds he received in combat. Like many of his classmates of that era, Sgt. Cherry was killed before he could return to graduate from The Citadel,” Long said. Long contacted the college shortly before the October ring ceremony to ask that a copy of Cherry’s grave adoption certificate be delivered to Koopman to have in hand for the events.
“I felt like it has completed the circle, like it was my destiny to be here. I am not a superstitious person, but I feel that this cannot be a coincidence. It is really quite interesting to think that Sgt. Cherry was just a little younger than me when he and his Citadel classmates went to war,” said Koopman.
According to Long, Koopman’s parents asked him to keep the connection confidential until the cadet’s senior year to avoid distractions. Patrick and Anja Koopman have since adopted the graves of two other Citadel men killed in action in World War II at an American cemetery in Belgium not far from their home, continuing the family’s tradition of caring for Citadel alumni lost in the service of their country and demonstrating their appreciation for what the college has provided to their son.
“We are so proud and honored with the adoption of the two graves,” said Anja and Patrick Koopman in an emailed message. “We are always so emotional when visiting the graves, as Tom is at the same age as these young, fallen Citadel men. We are also very proud being members of the Citadel Family.”
Koopman believes caring for the graves of American service people buried in his homeland is the right thing to do, even 70 years after their deaths. “The people of the Netherlands, including me and my family, basically owe these and other soldiers our freedom. It is the least we can do to return the favor. WWII will always be a sensitive subject, but this ongoing demonstration of respect hopefully helps soften some of the painful aspects of that war.”
Koopman hopes to play basketball professionally in Europe after graduating in May.
Written by Kim Keelor Parker, senior director of media relations, The Citadel, with Roger Long, chairman of The Citadel Memorial Europe Foundation and member of The Citadel Class of 1989