By Katie Zeck
Three hours before the 95th Veterans Day began, Tyler Hobbs, Jonathan Bowker and other members of Rider University’s Veterans Association (RUVA) were putting the last of the 6,759 American flags into hard ground on the campus mall.
The display, which involved individually placing each flag into handmade holes, took the student veterans almost 12 hours to complete. Its purpose was to memorialize and put into perspective the 6,759 soldiers who have died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars since Sept. 11, 2001.
“I am a vet, but each one of these flags are heroes to me,” said Hobbs, a senior education and psychology major. “Each one of these flags represents someone who did something I did not. They fought and died for their country. When they were given the option to go to college, they instead chose to go where their country needed. When they could have run away to spare their life, they chose to stand and fight against terror.”
Hobbs served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2004-09 with an air wing squadron in Japan in 2006 and Korea in 2008.
The veterans placed a special memorial flag and sign on the lawn for Rider alumnus Lt. Omar Vazquez, a 2007 graduate who enlisted in the Army and was killed by an improvised explosive device while on duty in Iraq on April 24, 2011.
The veterans’ hard work garnered the attention of media outlets such as NBC 10, The Times of Trenton and The Star Ledger.
“It was a little mind-blowing actually,” said Bowker, a junior marketing and advertising major. “I didn’t expect it to be as big as it was. We didn’t really do this for any media. We did it to try and bring some sort of unity to the campus.”
Bowker, who remains an active reservist with the New Jersey Army National Guard, said he felt “a beautiful pain” as he experienced the emotional display.
“This is our culture,” he said. “Now you might have an idea of what we dealt with, what we’re proud of. The media coverage will hopefully bring more veterans to Rider, as our numbers are dwindling.”
The idea for the display, according to Bowker, came about because of what he believed to be a lack of reflection on campus on Sept. 11.
“It felt too much like a normal day to me,” he said. “Not many students chose to stop and think about what the day was, nor did they actually seem to recognize the day. I wanted to do something that would let people know that wars from this catastrophic event, which have taken up the majority of their lives, are still going on. The people lost are individuals, not statistics. They wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They need to be recognized.”
Following the press coverage, student, faculty and staff veterans congregated in the Mercer Room at Daly’s for the university’s annual Veterans Day luncheon.
At the luncheon, President Mordechai Rozanski acknowledged the work of new Veteran Affairs Coordinator Russel Melville and the student veterans.
“I want to thank all the vets, specifically Jonathan and Tyler, for organizing this magnificent tribute,” Rozanski said. “The Rider statement of community values has an important phrase that discusses the notion of leadership and service to others, and this is the highest form of leadership. I’m hoping that this will be a statement that will be repeated each year.”
In closing, Melville presented a Buffalo Soldier award to Eugene Marsh, a Vietnam War veteran who is pursuing a degree in liberal studies. This award is presented to individuals who have made brave sacrifices for the United States. It dates back to the Civil War.
Bowker said that he felt humbled by the well-received feedback.
“The war in Iraq will always be a part of my life,” he said. “I think some of us actually do leave a piece of us back there. It’s always going to be so important to us, and these flags are just a solemn reminder of what we were a part of.”