Photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson November 10, 2021
The UD community unites in support of military service members
In 2006, between tours of duty in Iraq as a first lieutenant with the U.S. Marine Corps, Travis Manion walked out of Lincoln Financial Field, having just watched his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play a game. His friend and brother-in-law, a few beers deep, made an offhand joke: If you let me push you down the stairs, maybe you will break an ankle, and you won’t have to go back overseas.
Manion, typically the first to crack a joke, did not laugh. Instead, he paused for a moment before responding, solemnly, that if he did not return to the conflict in the Middle East, someone much less prepared for the job would go in his place.
“If not me,” he said, “then who?”
This was the anecdote relayed by Manion’s sister, Ryan, when she spoke to the University of Delaware community on Wednesday Nov. 10, about the powerful legacy of her brother, killed by enemy fire while pulling teammates to safety in Falluja, Iraq. On the 246th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, in recognition of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Ryan discussed her work as president of the Travis Manion Foundation, which empowers veterans as well as the families of fallen heroes, providing them with opportunities to motivate — and impart values to — future leaders. She gave her address in front of Memorial Hall, built to honor Delawareans who died in World War I.
“I am inspired and hopeful that the students from UD are the next generation of leaders, dedicated to improving themselves and their country,” she said during the event. Her brother’s if-not-me-then-who mantra, she added, “embodies your servant leadership, your integrity, your accountability, generosity and the resolve of your entire community.”
Providing the ceremony’s backdrop, on the University’s Green, 7,057 American flags waved in the breeze, each honoring a service member killed in action since terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
UD President Dennis Assanis, Provost Robin Morgan, Biden Institute Chair Valerie Biden Owens and other leaders welcomed Manion to campus for the event, which was organized by the institute in partnership with the Division of Student Life and the Blue Hen Veterans student organization.
“It has almost become a tagline — but it’s not — when people say: Freedom’s not free,” said John Long, executive vice president and chief operating officer at UD, and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “So I would say to take a picture of those flags, and show it to your neighbors, your sons, your daughters, your cousins, your partners. Show it to everybody, and make them understand what those flags represent: Freedom is not free.”
This event is one of many ways the University, a Military Friendly School, seeks to honor the service of veterans. In one silver screen-worthy example, Mark Moline, director of UD’s School of Marine Science and Policy, has co-founded Project Recover, a collaboration between scientists, historians and military veterans who search the ocean and remote areas of the planet in order to find and recover the remains of the more than 80,000 Americans missing in action since World War II, providing closure to families who’ve gone generations without answers. A documentary about this work, To What Remains, was selected for the prestigious American Film Institute Film Festival in Los Angeles and will be shown to a select audience on Nov. 11 in honor of Veterans Day. On Dec. 7, the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it will have several showings and then will be more widely available in theatres Dec. 10.
Meanwhile, on campus, approximately 130 enrolled students have served or are currently serving in a branch of the military, while another 170 are the dependents of veterans. Resources for this population include a Veteran and Military Success Center, which serves as a place to connect, find resources or simply hang out and study. Additionally, the University is actively developing strategies for creating more pathways to higher education for military personnel. Much of this research is happening at the world-renowned Biden Institute, named for President Joe Biden, a 1965 graduate of UD for whom veterans’ issues are a primary concern.
“It is important that we are accessible to all students, and veterans are part of that,” said Cara Lammey, UD’s veteran services coordinator. “But, also, our veterans are adding something to the campus climate and culture. These are students who are committed to their educational process, they are invested in service to the community, they care about one another and about helping people navigate this system, and they add a breadth of life experience to the classroom you cannot get from other folks and other students.”
Among the Blue Hens who have felt buoyed by this support is Kenny Sheehan, a 28-year-old junior studying Russian, Islamic studies, global studies and writing. A veteran of the Navy, he was deployed off the coasts of Egypt, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia and Iran before enrolling at UD. While most of his peers spent the months before college celebrating graduation and connecting with future roommates, he had worked on nuclear weapons security. “I felt like a bit of an outcast,” he said.
Fortunately, Sheehan discovered the Blue Hen Veterans (BHV) group on campus, which seeks to connect student veterans to one another as well as community engagement opportunities. Now, he serves as vice president of the organization, and he also serves as an intern with the Biden Institute. In these roles, he has helped organize events such as the Ryan Manion talk and the Hoagies with Heroes program, which brings speakers to campus to discuss veterans’ issues. He has also met with University administrators, giving voice to his community on ways UD can improve the student veteran experience.
“It seems everywhere I go on campus, people are advocating for veterans,” he said. “University staff members really care, and they want to help us in any way they can. They are just waiting for us to tell them how.”
Noah Polhemus, the president of the BHV group and a senior studying international relations, added that much of the work he and his peers are doing to improve the educational experience of military students on campus comes from a value shared by all service members: Others before self.
“UD is in the process of making great strides for student veterans,” said Polhemus, who served in the U.S. Navy and now serves in the Reserves. “These are things that I will not necessarily see, nor will my peers see. But they can benefit people down the line, and that is our motivation — making a better place not for us, but for those who will come after us. As veterans, that’s what we stand for.”
The importance of this living-for-others ethos — not just for service members, but for everyday civilians — was a main focus of Manion’s speech. Each of us, she explained, has an obligation to be a servant leader, whether in uniform or out.
“Even if our sphere of influence seems small or our actions seem insignificant, I promise you they are not,” she told the UD community. “We may not have the opportunity to rush into oncoming enemy fire to save a wounded teammate as my brother did, but we each have an opportunity to make a difference.”
So how does the average, non-hero student get started? That’s simple.
“Look for those ‘If not me, then who?’ moments,” Manion said. “They are around you every day.”