St. Ambrose University launches year-long project to share stories of 300 veterans

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The Rock Island National Cemetery on Arsenal Island is home to the remains of over 24,000 veterans and their family members.

In time for Veterans Day Thursday, St. Ambrose University is launching a large, year-long project to collect and share the stories of 300 veterans interred at the Rock Island National Cemetery on Arsenal Island.

Those profiled will have participated in some capacity to uphold American freedom and ideals in a war or conflict dating back to the Civil War, according to an Ambrose release Wednesday. Seemingly endless rows of white headstones fill 66 acres of the Rock Island National Cemetery, marking the lives of more than 24,000 veterans who are interred there.

“All of the graves look the same, regardless of rank or background or wealth or religion. But there is a story behind each one,” SAU education professor Dale Blesz said in the release.  “In some cases, we have some really interesting people buried there who have lived pretty interesting lives. But for the most part, they are ordinary people, some who died very young, who did extraordinary things. There is something sacred about that.”

SAU education professor Dale Blesz is co-directing the veterans project.

The Davenport-based private school is leading the new effort with its Veterans Recruitment and Services Office, staffed by Natalie Woodhurst ’16, coordinator for veterans recruitment and services. She is co-directing the project with Blesz.

Woodhurst said the project will hire 20 SAU student interns who will spend the next 10 months scouring military records, library archives, books, and newspaper clippings — and, when possible, interview family and friends — to learn about each veteran’s participation and role in the military and their challenges and successes in life.

That information will be used to create a curriculum kit holding 300 cards with biographical information about the veteran, including name, rank, branch on the front, and a short bio, photograph, and a QR code on the back.

The QR code will lead to a page on a website that will provide more information about the veteran, their service, and their life.

In all, 500 kits will be printed and donated to K-12 schools and public libraries throughout the region. In addition, the website will be directly accessible to anyone in the world and searchable by more than name, which Woodhurst said currently is the only way to search any National Cemetery database.

Woodhurst estimates it will take 3,000 hours of research for the student interns to gather all of the information, and then write and post it to the website. In addition, Blesz said the SAU School of Education is making sure the kits, and lesson plans they create and make available to educators, meet National Council for Social Studies curriculum requirements.

Natalie Woodhurst is St. Ambrose University’s coordinator for veterans recruitment and services.

In her position at Ambrose, Woodhurst helps active military and veterans with all aspects of enrollment at SAU, including how to pay for tuition using military benefits. She also coordinates campus events such as the medaling ceremonies that honor graduating veterans and active military for their service and academic accomplishments.

The University’s Veterans Legacy Project committee will choose the 300 veterans to profile, which will likely include medal recipients — former Illinois Congressman Lane Evans (1951-2014), a U.S. Marine who served in the Vietnam War; John Junior Willie (1926-2000), an American Indian who served as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II; and U.S. Navy veteran Eugene Baker (1925-1999), the Chicago Cubs’ second Black player.

In addition, the deck of 300 cards will feature veterans who lived quiet lives in and outside of their military service, and contributed just as much to the world, Woodhurst said in the release.

The 500 kits will be donated and delivered to K-12 schools and public libraries throughout the region and the finished project will be publicly unveiled and celebrated on Veterans Day 2022.

Burial in a national cemetery is open to all members of the armed forces who have met a minimum active duty service requirement and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. A veteran’s spouse, widow or widower, minor dependent children, and under certain conditions, unmarried adult children with disabilities may also be eligible for burial. Eligible spouses and children may be buried even if they predecease the veteran, according to the Rock Island National Cemetery website.

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