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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

War Memorial Dedication at Duke University
Durham, NC
October 23, 2009

Good morning, everyone. It’s wonderful to be back on this beautiful campus, where I spent two memorable years of study and reflection. I’m honored to be here today to help re-dedicate the memorial honoring Duke Graduates who fell in service to our country.

After studying engineering at West Point, and serving two combat tours in Vietnam, I arrived in Durham in 1974, thinking I had cleared some of life’s most challenging hurdles. Then I encountered the English Department. Wow! I think I spent every waking moment for two years reading books and articles most undergrad English majors had perused as sophomores. But, what I learned at Duke has served me well for over 30 years now, and the memories of my time here are fond and deep.

Duke has had many distinguished alumni, but the names on this memorial personify duty, honor, courage, and service to something larger than self. This memorial is a testament to the belief that free people can bend history in the direction of their best hopes, and that history will not forget their service or their sacrifice.

Edmund Burke wrote that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” All whose names appear here exemplify the hope contained in Burke’s admonition. They did not stand idle; they acted. They understood their duty and fulfilled it. They carried with them the love of family and country, which they swore to safeguard by their service.Many of the fallen undertook their military education and training through the ROTC program here at Duke. Others joined the military after college, as a way to give back to their country. No matter their source of commission, when tyrannies threatened, each answered the call with the prophet Isaiah’s resolve: “Here am I, [Lord], send me.”

From a distance, these engraved names all look alike. Yet, every son or daughter, mom or dad, brother or sister, who visits, will always see their one name first.    Each name is a profound statement of love, patriotism, and loyalty. The families and friends, gathered here today, have given someone precious and irreplaceable in their lives—and we are here to honor and thank them.

When I served as Army Chief of Staff, I called as many families as I could of soldiers who died on operations during my tenure. These were calls to try to express the inexpressible; to assuage the unbearable; and to say “thank you” when no measure of gratitude could ever fill the void left by the death of a child given in service to the Nation. They were phone calls no parent wants to take and I, as Chief of Staff, wished never to make.

At a time of a parent’s deepest grief, when my call was an intrusion into their private anguish, mothers and fathers shared their hearts with me, helped me through my own sorrow, and made me even prouder of their children. Ultimately, it was I who was consoled during those calls.

Very often, it is the fallen themselves who provide us with the inspiration we need to meet another day. Lieutenant Harold Arthur Kepnes graduated from Duke in 1934, and later earned his medical degree from Tufts University. A member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, he was killed in action in Guadalcanal in 1943. Before he died, he consoled his wife in a letter to her:

“If the Lord above deems it my fortune to be spared and sent back to my loved ones, then I shall be ever thankful, but if on the other hand I shall be one of the victims of this hideous curse of humanity, then I am willing to go in my single attempt to wipe out this enemy, for I would not be happy being under the yoke of oppression of rulers as these for my life is my love of freedom and supreme happiness as I would only have if I were surrounded by the ones I love and whom I would feel could be free to talk, to act, to live in a free country.”

Lieutenant Kepnes has been memorialized here at Duke on these plaques since they were first dedicated. Today, another group of patriots will join him. We salute them and their devotion to our country. Our gratitude is deep and profound.

It has been said that "poor is the Nation that has no heroes, but beggared is the Nation that has and forgets them." Those we honor today answered their call to duty, and in doing so, they honored us. It is, now, our duty to honor them and the legacy they left for us. They should not be strangers to young Americans, especially those studying here at Duke.

May Duke University find ways to make this memorial central and important to future generations of students and faculty, who will be privileged to study and work here, as they did. May the university remind all that our freedom was purchased by stalwarts like these, who gave their tomorrows for our todays.

As we honor these courageous and distinguished alumni, our thoughts and prayers are also with those who serve today. Let us give thanks to all who wear the uniforms of our Nation, who carry our ideals high, and who keep our country the land of the free and the home of the brave. May God bless them and their families. 

Thank you.