Remember their names: Citadel War Memorial to honor fallen alumni
As seen in The Post and Courier, May 30, 2016, by Paul Bowers
Three years after Army Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman died in combat in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, his name survives in many ways. A scholarship was established in his honor, a plaque in his hometown recalls his sacrifice, and a handful of relatives and friends have named children in his memory.
In the fall of 2017, Wittman’s name will appear on a new monument at The Citadel, the public military college where he graduated in 2007. A plea by 1967 Citadel grad John Warley will set the tone: “Speak softly in the company of heroes.”
For Aaron’s father and fellow Citadel graduate, retired Maj. Duane Wittman, this memorial feels different from all the others. When Aaron’s name appears in black granite beside the names of fallen servicemen dating back to 1846, it will project a sense of permanence — something that Wittman said many families of fallen veterans desperately need.
“Probably the worst fear that a family can have is that people will forget the sacrifice their loved one has made,” Wittman said. “That memorial represents, in a way, the attempt by everyone to ensure that whoever sees this memorial in the future ... it’s there for posterity.”
The Citadel Class of 1967, which lost several members in the Vietnam War, decided to fund the $1 million memorial’s construction as a 50th-anniversary gift to their alma mater. The Citadel Foundation plans to break ground on the construction site beside Summerall Chapel during the November 2016 homecoming and dedicate the completed memorial during the fall 2017 homecoming.
Retired Lt. Gen. W. Michael Steele, a member of the Class of 1967 and former chairman of The Citadel Board of Visitors, said that as members of his class began to research their school’s history, they found that more than 400 cadets or alumni had died in combat, including many who left to fight in World War II before completing their degrees.
“They’ve done their duty, they served with honor, and we needed to do something on campus to respect their service and sacrifice,” Steele said in a video promoting the memorial project.
Citadel alumni have fought in every U.S. national conflict since the Mexican-American War. To appear on the wall, a Citadel alumnus has to have died in service of either the U.S. armed forces or, during the Civil War, the Confederate military. The Citadel Foundation is verifying names that will go on the monument.
The names of The Citadel’s fallen soldiers currently appear in a hodgepodge of plaques on the front of Summerall Chapel representing various conflicts and wars. Retired Army Col. Tony Lackey, a 1961 Citadel graduate and decorated Vietnam War veteran, remembers many of the men whose names appear on those plaques, whether as classmates or as students during his time in leadership positions at the college.
“I knew most of these men when they were boys, in one form or another,” Lackey said. He remembers Capt. David Widder, “the finest cadet” and one of the first to die in Vietnam, and he remembers Maj. Bill Wood, one of the last to perish in the conflict.
Lackey remembers Maj. Sam Bird, a classmate who would later help carry President John F. Kennedy’s casket — and hold it steady when others staggered under the weight.
At the time they entered school together, Lackey said Bird was “pear-shaped” and physically unfit. But by the time they both left The Citadel to serve overseas, Bird was the picture of an ideal soldier: “No fanny, broad shoulders, big arms like John Wayne,” Lackey recalled.
Bird’s military career came to an end in 1967 when he received a head wound from a Viet Cong sniper. He suffered from his injury until dying in 1984.
Later, Lackey said he met a soldier who had served under Bird’s leadership in Vietnam and offered a word of high praise: Bird took care of his men.
“He truly loved Sam Bird,” Lackey said.
When the Citadel War Memorial is unveiled in the fall of 2017, it will mark the 175-year anniversary of the school, the 50-year reunion of the Class of ’67, and the 10-year reunion of Aaron Wittman’s graduating class.
Retired Maj. Steven Smith, a Citadel TAC officer and historian, said he hopes future cadets will see the memorial and think of the footsteps they are following. Blank space will remain on the granite for more names to come.
“War is a nasty business whatever era it’s done in,” Smith said. “You still see sacrifice throughout the history of the college.”
How to give
The Citadel War Memorial’s construction and maintenance are fully funded by a $1 million gift from The Citadel Class of 1967. Currently, donations to the memorial fund will go to support The Citadel Fund, The Citadel LEAD Plan 2018 Fund and the Athletics Enhancement Fund. To donate in memory of a fallen classmate, family member or friend, visit foundation.citadel.edu/warmemorial.