In the Church, on the day that a saint dies or is buried (“deposited into the earth”), those who knew them or revere them celebrate the life of the saint; they hold a feast. For many churches, feast days that fall in Lent or on Easter get pushed to other days so as to not steal the limelight. But this is a special circumstance, I think.

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April 16, 2017 is Easter. It is also the anniversary of the death of Alexander Ney. Up until recently, I didn’t know much about Alex, and many at Duke didn’t even remember his name. But this morning that changed when I discovered that it was on this day nine years ago that the Duke veteran died by suicide.

On Wednesday, April 16, 2008, Alex took his own life. At the time, he was a 29 year old PhD student studying breast cancer and had a little boy getting ready to turn two years old. Five days later his memorial was held at Duke Chapel, on Monday April 21, 2008, but no recording of the service can be found. He was eulogized by Gaston Warner, Director of University and Community Relations for the Chapel. Arlington National Cemetery is his final resting place.

Five months later, in September, Student Affairs hosted a tailgate during the Army v. Duke football game to attract and organize veterans on campus. One report claims over 100 military related students showed up, including Army Major Mike McInerney, who became the first student veteran leader on campus.

Screenshot 2017-04-16 11.41.25

The website that McInerney set up, DukeVets.org, has lapsed and no longer exists so I revived it. Despite years of service to Duke as a student and employee, I never heard of the group he is credited with creating which, in a 2009 Duke Today article, was called the “Student Veteran’s Association.”  When I tried, like McInerney, to “[collect] information about services and benefits for Duke students now or previously affiliated with the military,” I was repeatedly shut down and my work obstructed or outright stolen. The “larger initiative at Duke to meet the needs of students with military backgrounds,” which the same 2009 article cites, showed little or no progress until the university became the subject of a federal investigation.

Only once I began insisting that Duke stop paying veterans lip service and put their money where their mouth is, did the university create a Recruitment Representative and Veterans Outreach Coordinator in Human Resources, and hired a graduate assistant position to focus on vets (a position I recommended in 2013 and which I was falsely accused of having turned down). I met with Larry Moneta in early 2013 to suggest the creation of a veteran center on campus on par with the university Women’s Center, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and the Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity. I remember the look on his face when he shook his head and told me that no vet center or other initiative would be funded any time soon. It just didn’t make fiscal sense, but a second major building for the arts apparently did. To be fair, that’s because an alumni donor gave the money to make it make fiscal sense. Despite notable veteran Blue Devils like Eric Shinseki and Martin Dempsey, Duke Alumni Association has no affinity group for them on their website (another 2013 recommendation I made; see p.3).

This is alarming because Moneta has known for years that “veteran support issues” were also a Duke issue, but he failed or refused to act following a veteran suicide under his watch. A few months after Alex’s death, Moneta went on record promising to:

  1. formalize veterans’ programming as part of Duke’s new student orientation
  2. add military status to the admissions information collected by Duke’s schools
  3. design a campuswide half-day workshop on serving veteran students

To my knowledge, nothing resembling this description has ever happened at Duke.

If CPT Ney deployed to OIF-I with the 82nd, that means that, not only did our time as paratroopers overlap, but we even served in the same infantry brigade; 3-325 PIR. And not only were we in the same brigade at the same time, we were both field artillery, so he would have been in my same FA battalion, 2-319 AFAR, at some point while I reenlisted and PCSed to Schofield. CPT Ney and I were in the same battalion at the same time; he is no longer an abstraction. Not for me, and not for Duke. It is no longer excusable to pay lip service to military service by elite institutions of higher education like Duke.

I learned of a suicide by a Duke veteran in 2012, and nobody knew his name. Not President Brodhead, not Moneta, not even Clay Adams, who organized the tailgate. Alex died nine years ago today, and he should not be forgotten.  The work that began in response to his tragic and untimely death should be more than words on a page, more than tongues dancing behind lip service to those whose service doesn’t demand the ultimate sacrifice until after we take off our uniform…

Alex Ney’s name should be added to the War Memorial beside Duke Chapel, and they should update the panels with current names, adding one for Afghanistan, and include those, like Alex, who died long after their service ended.

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