The Memorial Union's 50th birthday last month was a time for celebration and commemoration, the latter a tribute to the Aggie soldiers to whom the building is dedicated.
"I'd like for students to go in there and know it's the 'veterans' Memorial Union," said Phil Knox, interim director of Advising Services, who started his career at UC Davis as the campus's veterans counselor in 1976. His message is particularly important at this time of year, with Memorial Day on Monday.
A memorial to Aggies lost in war has been part of the MU since its beginning. The memorial started with more than 100 names from World War I and II. Additional names came with the Korean War, though no one is quite sure when they were added. Each name was engraved on its own brass plate, and the plates surrounded the brick facade of the fireplace in Griffin Lounge.
Not long after he started working with veterans at UC Davis, Knox inquired about updating the memorial with the names of Aggies lost in the Vietnam War. He asked for a list of names from the Department of Defense; what he got was an inch-thick computer printout with the names of all California casualties.
"I cross-checked every name with the registrar's office," he said. He came up with four casualties from Vietnam — and their names were added to the memorial.
In the early 1990s, an MU renovation took out the fireplace's brick facade, and replaced the brass plates with larger, stainless steel plates — each inscribed with many names — on a wall next to the fireplace.
Today there are 134 names, with one more to be added: Army Maj. Mark Taylor, UC Davis' lone casualty from the Iraq War. Taylor, a surgeon who received his undergraduate degree from UC Davis in March 1986, was killed in the line of duty on March 20, 2004.
His name will join those under this inscription: "This building is a memorial to all those of the Davis campus who gave their lives in the service of their country."
Upon the new memorial's installation, Knox organized a rededication ceremony, on May 25, 1994. The Cal Aggie Marching Band-uh! played and ROTC soldiers marched in with the flags.
A similar ceremony took place last month during the MU's 50th anniversary week. John Munn attended the ceremony to honor the uncle he never knew: George Allen, killed in France in 1944. He went off to war soon after graduating from UC Davis, where he had served as student body president. Munn also attended UC Davis, earning a bachelor's degree in 1971 and a master's degree in soil science in 1974.
"I think the memorial is well deserved by the men who went off to serve their country," Munn said this week. Their sacrifice, he said, fails to register with today's students, and that disappoints him. "In order to remember, every now and then you need to look at the past."
Last month's ceremony included a talk by senior Ashley Orvis, chair of the Campus Union and Recreation Board. "I view the MU as a living tribute to each memorialized soldier's resolve to ensure that our country, and this university, can freely achieve their goals," she said by e-mail last week.
Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Mark W. Connelly, chair of the Department of Military Science, also participated in the ceremony. In an e-mail, he described the memorial as "an absolutely outstanding and inspiring part of our school's history."
"And while I am unsure what the average UC Davis student may or may not know about the MU — and how it was established and named — I am certain that they, like the Military Science department, are thankful for the contributions and sacrifices that have been made by UC Davis alumni and faculty."
Knox could not agree more. "I want them to be remembered, to be highlighted."
Knox served with an Army communications unit from 1969 to 1972 during the time of the Vietnam War. He did not go to Vietnam, but he was a strong supporter of the effort in the early 1980s to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C., to the more than 58,000 men and women who died in that war.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial that emerged is known as The Wall, inscribed with all the victims' names, and Knox was there for its dedication in November 1982. "I can remember it to this day," he said. "You just stare into it. It goes right into your soul."
Later, Knox supported the effort for a Sacramento tribute to California's fallen soldiers from the Vietnam War; that monument was dedicated in Capitol Park in December 1988.
"What was important for me was that we don't forget the sacrifices that were made," he said. Vietnam, "that was brutal, all those teenagers dying."
Among those who returned, about 1,100 were attending UC Davis when Knox became the campus's veterans counselor. He said he took the job because of "what was going on at the time, the way veterans were being treated."
"On one side, people held the veterans responsible for America's loss in the war, and on the other side were people disgusted that they participated," he recalled.
On top of that came problems with veterans benefits, including the GI Bill that paid for schooling: "They wouldn't get their checks, benefits were being cut or were delayed for months," Knox said. "And there were few services or access for the disabled.
"A lot of veterans were angry, had medical needs and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome."
Now, with the Iraq War going on, "we are seeing some of these needs all over again, but not, of course, in the same numbers," he said. Today, about 100 veterans are enrolled.
Knox, who graduated from UC Davis in 1976, has never strayed far from his roots in veterans counseling. He now heads the department that includes the Veterans Services Program.
He is always mindful of the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice: those whose names are listed on the Memorial Union's plaque, the California state memorial, The Wall in Washington, D.C., and on that computer printout he got so long ago from the Department of Defense.
He still has it in a filing cabinet in his South Hall office. "I didn't have the heart to throw it away."
Service at Davis Cemetery
A Memorial Day service is planned at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the cemetery at 820 Pole Line Road at East Eighth Street.