The Feast of Alexander Ney

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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CPT Alexander Ney in an undated photo taken during his enrollment at Duke University

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.

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Alex rests at Court 8, Section HH, Column 7, Niche 4 of the Arlington Columbarium

The website that McInerney set up, DukeVets.org, has lapsed and no longer exists. 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 awhile that “veteran support issues” were a Duke issue, but he failed or refused to act for seven years following a veteran suicide under his watch. It was Moneta’s office that, in 2009, was supposedly

pushing to formalize veterans’ programming as part of Duke’s new student orientation and is working to add military status to the admissions information collected by Duke’s schools. Dean of Students staff members are designing 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. 

Exploitation (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

Sometimes, my silence is a product of systematic injustices that put me into a box, like when I’m reduced to an embodied diagnosis, when military culture is appropriated by civilians, or when veterans are excluded from institutional attention.. But sometimes the injustice seems too calculated to chalk up to mere unconscious bias. Every now and then veterans are tokenized by partisan politics or have their work undervalued or exploited, as has been the case a few times for me.

Before I graduated, I asked about starting an advanced spiritual formation course at Duke Divinity, through the office of the chaplain. As time passed my training and experience increased, and my vocational calling to veterans crystallized, so I offered to lead such a group after I graduated. It didn’t work out that first year, but I revisited the idea after getting back from Scotland. I offered to lead a group without pay as a pilot program after budget concerns were cited (twice), but the story then changed to wanting to get consensus from student veterans and anxiety about the precedent of not paying someone to lead a group for credit. Two weeks later, I got word that the chaplain formed a group after all, but had an administrator lead it, another veteran who had asked me for specific details I had in mind for the group, making it look a lot like intellectual property theft.

When I began looking for work for more concertedly, an acquaintance asked around within the VA about possible programs. This person alerted me to the Veterans Integration To Academic Leadership (VITAL) program, which creates partnerships between VA medical centers and universities, but has no presence in NC. He and I then spoke to the Acting National Director of the program by phone on April 19. Joining us on the call were the suicide prevention coordinator at the Durham VAMC, and an outreach specialist from the Raleigh vet center.

In January the following year, the possibility of a paid position opening up within the Durham VA  grew directly from the conversation the prior April. Anticipating possible employment, I spent several hours compiling data and anecdotal evidence to support an application and illustrate the need for better coordination between the VA and Duke University. The six page document I created, which I titled “DUKE VETERANS Issues and Proposals,” was shared with VA principals, but the position did not coalesce.

There are two columns throughout the document, one that describes the “Issue” that veterans at Duke faced, based on my own experience and the experiences relayed to me by other veterans and civilian staff, as the 2011 founder of a student group at the Divinity School, two years serving as president of Duke Veterans, and the initiator of the first Student Veterans of America chapter at the university.

All 24 Issues had a corresponding Proposal which I recommended based on the same experience, as well as my experience as an undergraduate veteran representative at Hawaii Pacific University, which is consistently ranked one of the most military friendly colleges in the United States. My experience also draws from more than six years on active duty as a paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg, NC and a noncommissioned officer and artilleryman, including 13 months deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

There were four sections, roughly outlined administrative areas, which I reviewed and provided recommendations for;

  • Health Care
  • Registration & Financial Aide
  • Information Systems
  • Student Life & Community Affairs

In six different individual Proposals, across four unique sections, I recommended the establishment of a “paid staff position” to coordinate efforts and effectively engage with and increase cultural sensitivity to veterans. This document was circulated amongst Duke staff and student veterans, but no action was taken, of which I am aware.

In May 2016, after a discussion with Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), I was sent an unsolicited email requesting information about the document’s authors and requesting permission “to share with Duke staff”. I responded that I created it myself, and that it was not complete, because I lacked adequate funding to finish compiling the input from various veterans at Duke. I also stated that the document was created in relation to an employment opportunity, and that

If its use leads to generating funding of any kind, I have to insist I be compensated for the work that went into creating it, as it represents intellectual property and manual labor which has quantifiable value

The United States Copyright Office makes clear that “work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” My work, in the form of population research and expert recommendations made based upon my extensive experience as a veteran and consultant, was “created and fixed” as early as 2014. Furthermore, I replied in writing that its use was not unrestricted; that if money was awarded as a result of my recommendations, then I would require proper compensation.

The OIE representative did not object in any way or form following this email exchange. On May 17, 2016, at 1:13pm, she replied “I understand;” agreeing simultaneously to another restriction, that no names be released publicly.

On December 14, 2016, I learned from a student veteran that the recommendation that a paid staff position be created had in fact been adopted by the Student Affairs office at Duke, which had received the document from OIE seven months prior. I wrote to OIE to confirm, who responded five days later, saying “the fact you have not been contacted should not be taken personally by you.” An Assistant Vice President for Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity replied

With regard to your prior advocacy for the creation of paid staff positions dedicated to serving veterans at Duke, your input is of course welcome.  The creation of this graduate assistant position, however, arose out of the natural process of evaluating Student Affairs initiatives.  Hopefully you will view this as a positive sign of Duke’s ongoing commitment to student veterans.

However, I did not make an unrestricted offer to the university, and explicitly made my terms clear, which were violated by Duke and my intellectual property was knowingly and consciously infringed by its representatives. Two days later, I replied (the full email is preserved here);

Thank you for getting back to me. You seem to have misunderstood me, however. I did not expect to be contacted about applying for the position, nor do I have any way of taking “it” other than personally, because I am a person, after all. To be clear, my ‘personal’ reaction does not derive from not receiving the job posting. My concern derives from my work being exploited in order to improve university programming too little, too late, which I fear will be one more bandaid solution which leaves all too many underlying issues completely unaddressed. My reaction also derives from the long history Duke has of stifling contrasting voices, discriminating against protected veterans, and tolerating hostile environments.

On May 17th, you solicited this document from me. You also mentioned Student Affairs as being somehow related to the timing which framed your request. In my reply, I told you this document represented work of mine for which I requested compensation if used or if it led to new funding. I requested this because workers should be paid for their time and labor. You are also fully aware that I am a protected veteran. As I said more recently, [Clay] Adams’ non communication begins to appear retaliatory, or at least exploitative.

Retaliatory:

I identified myself as a community stake holder in how Duke treats veterans both as a student, alumnus, and as a local resident. Adams ceased communicating with me in 2013 even after convening a meetings in which he told several Duke and non Duke stake holders he would continue the meetings every semester. I can name four witnesses to that statement, which was made in April 2013. I never received any further communication about any meetings, though Adams would have known I am invested in working for veterans. He ceased communicating with me that same year, and I never received word of further meetings, which were supposed to be held every semester. It is fine for Adams to not like my input, but for any administrator at Duke to exclude me from any and all deliberations about veterans at the third largest employer in NC is neither necessary nor reasonable. I also will be asking the Department of Justice, and other relevant agencies, to investigate whether this exclusionary and selective treatment interferes with or limits my ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges extended to other alumni, employees, or local stake holders.

Exploitative:

You personally asked for my work and your office then shared it internally without any communication with me thereafter. If you or Adams did not like my input, agreeing with one or more of my recommendations while simultaneously excluding me from any and all deliberations is contradictory at the least. It also makes it look as though Duke is making use of and/or deriving benefit from me (the definition of exploitation), for the purpose of improving its programming and institutional reputation, improvements which I have called for several years in a row now. Calling this a “natural” process begs for definition, because it otherwise appears that these changes are only being implemented because of my speaking up for myself and other veterans. However, Duke’s refusal to be genuinely collaborative is forcing the issue to federal agencies, which is more likely to negatively affect my professional development, in the midst of a growing family, than it is to affect Duke in any substantive way.

Student Affairs could have created this position ‘naturally’ at any time since the passage of VEVRAA in the 1970’s, including the semester in which I advocated for it in 2013. But it was not created until a few months after you requested this document from me and shared it with Student Affairs. Material which I identified as intellectual property was solicited and then used without any apparent effort to communicate with me or recognize my contribution thereto. I suspect DoL can find out more precisely when Moneta and Adams began shaping the job posting, and if it began in the late spring, that would represent direct evidence that my input was incorporated after being explicitly solicited by you; either as the impetus for creating the position, or as a direct and solicited contribution to its development.

I cannot applaud any selective and arbitrary “commitment” to student veterans because I myself was a student veteran, and Duke’s “commitment” to me as a student, an alumnus, and as an employee has been incompetent, unprofessional, and discriminatory. I will not applaud harassment, bias, or discrimination against myself or any veteran.

The OIE representative did not reply to this email. The last I ever received from her was her insistence that I “view this as a positive sign of Duke’s ongoing commitment to student veterans.”

In a January 24, 2017 call with the OFCCP investigator representing the Department of Labor, I learned that university general counsel had provided false information to a federal agency. The investigator asked me to explain why I had denied an offer of employment for the position in question. I forwarded the above discussed correspondence to the person to prove this accusation by the office of Duke counsel was entirely false.

 

Holy Week Veteran Events

Some Durham veterans are organizing a few military-themed events open to all, and we hoping folks will help us get the word out in the Triangle. We didn’t plan on it being Holy Week, but I definitely see some significance.
The first event, today, is an image and word exhibition we’re calling “The Voices of War,” Thursday, April 13th at 6pm at The Mothership in Durham. Seats are going fast, but we’d love to have a strong local veteran contingent. People can RSVP online at https://www.eventbrite.com/myevent?eid=33085866718
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The second event is a writing workshop Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren will be leading via Warrior Writers on Saturday, April 15 from 12-3pm on Duke’s West Campus. There’s no flyer, and seats are very limited, but we’ve just confirmed Whole Foods will provide lunch. This is hopefully the first of many arts-centric community building events, so let me know if you’re interested but can’t make this one. People can RSVP to the workshop online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/warrior-writers-artist-workshop-tickets-33501338405
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Thanks for any help in spreading the word and we hope folks show up as they’re available.

Good (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I am giving up silence.

In other prior posts, I’ve mentioned my interactions with 2001’s “Best” theologian starting with belittling military tradition in an interview. The “Faculty Panel on War” wasn’t even the last straw, but repeatedly associating soldiers with murder was. His infamous bull-in-the-china-shop methodology was officially crossing a moral threshold from bad to inexcusable, so I called him on his piss poor public persona.

I asked to discuss the matter in person, in the spirit of Matthew 18, because the fact that he’d repeated a harmful anecdote at Baylor suggested he was using it regularly, and insofar as it was broadly imparting shame upon an already degraded population, it was sinful. In his reply, he insisted “I have never been sure exactly what I said you found so offensive, but I will be glad to talk with you.” To his credit, other local theologians have thrown around Matthew 18 in public discourse, (“confronting one’s offending brother or sister” is described as both “necessary” and “imperative,” p.193) only to push me off to “administrative leadership.”

We met at an on-campus gym, where I reiterated that I was approaching him as a Christian brother and explained that my hope was for reconciliation. I felt personally slighted by a number of actions he took, but more importantly, his rhetorical recklessness was negatively effecting Christian soldiers and veterans en masse. I told him specifically what I felt reconciliation involved, based on his own work; “Reconciliation is when my enemy tells me my story and I am able to say, yes that is my story.” (p.4)

The problem seemed to be that he had never listened to the story of Christian soldiers closely enough to recognize the harm his words and deeds caused a federally protected population. Maybe he didn’t know enough Christian soldiers whose experience challenged his own pre-determined absolute pacifism (or, worse, he did know them and was just unrepentant).

Rather than hear my story, he rationalized his “murderer” comment by saying he had referred specifically to Nixon, and not other presidents generically, therefore (in his mind), the words he chose were carefully selected and justified. True to character, of being “without apology,” pacifism’s poster theologian refused the requisite humility to hear the pain he’d caused me or any other Christian soldier, past or present. At least this explains the absurdly thin defense he makes of his celebrity (which he acknowledges “is a form of secular power”); he doesn’t try to be humble because he doesn’t “think you can try to be humble.” (p.ix, emphasis added)

Listening to him pontificate in the busy gym (staring at the same detached eyes you see in the featured image above), I cried rather openly, only the second time in my life. It was dawning on me that, whether the comment was intentionally derogatory or not, he didn’t give a shit. It was also setting in that this was the best American theology could do about the complex reality of armed service. I was fucked, and I was seeing the long, isolated road before me if I was going to pull my community out of the nose dive that theologians like him had propelled us into.

He was tonedeaf to the his rhetorical belligerence despite my suggestion that maybe God made him the “Stanley Hauerwas” he so abhors; that such a divine calling carried with it added liability to represent those values which Christians hold in common. Although he acknowledged the likelihood of providential bestowal of his notoriety, he characteristically made no apologies for his celebrity, disclaiming any responsibility such a calling might include.

When I pressed him to any kind of critical self-assessment, he deflected, insisting I “leave [him] alone” because he was old and tired. He didn’t want to be held to the typical scholarly standards. Hell, he didn’t even want to be held to Christian standards. In 2006, he wrote in his commentary on the gospel of Matthew (p.90, on chapter 7, the one about judging others);

The temptation to separate the truth of what we believe from our lives is the result of our fear of being held accountable.

His words seemed self-fulfilling; one of his tactics for avoiding mutual accountability was to ask me “Who are you to judge me?” I answered in the only way I knew how, influenced as I was by his own high ecclesiology; ‘I am a member by baptism of the same holy, catholic, and apostolic church to which you belong.’

What frustrated me the most was that he didn’t understand (or care) that I too was tired, but not old. I was tired of treatment by pacifists mimicking his harmful methodology, tired of having to do theology in an ideological vacuum,  and tired of having to correct his missteps. When another student veteran wrote a poem that seemed to address the very same rhetorical belligerence to which I was objecting (see my comments in that post), the Best passed the buck to me, another tuition-paying student. The student veteran and pastor had written to the Best to say he had “noticed that very few people at Duke, neither students nor faculty, know what to do with veterans.  I am approached often by students wondering how to minister to combat vets.”

Instead of hearing this as, say, an invitation to think more deeply about how his thirty years of contributing to the environment this veteran described, he passed the buck, CCing me and telling the guy to be in touch.

It wasn’t even clear the poem had been read at all closely; he assumed “the problem” was this veteran, but that makes no sense. “Problem” occurs twice in the poem, it is “you” (You theologian, You civilian Christian, You pastor) who looks at your difference from me (Me veteran) as a problem. A few lines later, it’s made explicit; “My difference is not a problem.” The problem is theologians; the problem is partisan ideology driving an absolutist theology that hurts people; the problem is Christians mistaking celebrity for credibility. The problem is that nobody wants to listen to veterans, we want to push them to the margins of our community, because what they have to say is often self-indicting, and we don’t want to be held accountable.

The problem is that we all want to separate our lives from the truth of what we believe.

I have been silently picking up the pot shards left by this bull-in-the-china-shop for half a decade after coming to North Carolina, as has this student veteran, who described to the Best the same peer support I find myself doing. Because I feel called by God to this marginalized community, I continue to catch veterans falling through cracks like these, created by centuries of shit theology and reinforced by self-professed assholes (p.9, fn20).

In Scotland, I was taught that theology has always been a communal activity, which means all Christians are indicted by the epidemic of soldier suicide, not just famous theologians. None of us can be silent, and none of us can slough off the moral responsibility we share toward one another as fellow members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Memorializing (Lent 2017)

For lent this year, I’m giving up silence.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about being written out of the pacifist camp. I first noticed some distance, however, during my second semester in seminary, when I was looked at askance for my frustration that a veterans memorial had been desecrated.

Just outside Duke Chapel, there is a war memorial to Duke alumni who were enrolled in at least two consecutive semesters and died while serving our country. It rests atop a wall built in 1993 to display the names of alumni killed in WWII. New brass panels were installed in January 2010 to list additional names, grouped by conflict;

  • The World War II panel has 244 names
  • The Korean War panel has 10 names
  • The Vietnam War panel has 19 names
  • The Iraq War panel has 2 names
  • An “Active Duty” panel has 27 names

The rededication in early 2010 “took more than three years to complete,” suggesting it began in 2006. At the ceremony, Duke alumnus Eric Shinseki remarked “Duke has many distinguished alumni, but I’d argue that the names on this memorial represent the most distinguished.”

Photo by Chris Hildreth, for Duke Magazine

In response to the Duke Magazine article “Memorializing Duke’s War Dead,” an Army Major and Duke alumnus reflected on implicit messages such overt displays convey;

the fact that the university had not updated the memorial since World War II subtly communicated to me that the university was less cognizant of the recent or ongoing contributions of Duke’s military alumni… Consider that the U.S. military personnel have been in Afghanistan for almost ten years, yet the university is just now recognizing the alumni service in that war.

Despite the criticism above, there’s actually no Afghanistan panel on the memorial. Passersby may also notice that there are no WWI names, but that’s because the university didn’t exist until after “The Great War” ended. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, however, is the longest war in our nation’s history, and it began five years before work to verify the names for the memorial started. It’s absence is therefore rather striking.

Others at Duke also saw subtle messages surrounding the memorial and its omissions. A tenure track professor who was present for Shinseki’s speech in 2010 wrote to me in 2015;

I am grieved that there is such a hostile environment for veterans and military personnel. When I think of the other causes and groups that get considerable support, I want to get sick. It took forever, apparently, to get the administration to approve dedicating the names of Vietnam Vets on the war memorial wall. For a variety of reasons, the military is spoken about in such dismissive and disparaging terms

The comment about Vietnam refers to the total lack of any names other than from WWII when the wall was built in 1993. For 27 years, until 2010, alumni who died in Korea (known as “The Forgotten War”) and Vietnam lacked any representation on the wall. In that same span of time, America retroactively rubber stamped Tom Brokaw’s moniker in 1998, spitting on the service of veterans of the two conflicts that followed WWII, as though their sacrifice didn’t count because they didn’t “win.” They also didn’t enjoy the wide support of the international community, but that’s another story I suppose.

During the Spring 2011 semester, the Iraq panel of the memorial was defaced. Someone had painted their tag on the panel the evening prior, a week night. For reference, defacement of property, including, conceivably, a memorial for alumni killed while serving in the military, represents what the Taskforce on Bias and Hate (which omits any mention of an entire federally protected population) would later call “A Hate and Bias Intensifier.” Defacing a memorial owned by Duke is supposed to trigger “education, dialogue, and engagement, with a particular focus on restorative measures to help the targeted… community.” (Taskforce Final Report, p.33) I was the first to report the incident, several hours into a weekday when many people would have passed by the defacement on their way to classes. No engagement occurred other than by the baseball cap-clad custodial staff who scrubbed the panel of its veneer, the effect of which is still visible six years later.

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Iraq panel has been de-glossed

As for those pacifists alarmed at my dismay, it is nonsensical to assume that lamenting the deaths of soldiers in war celebrates war or even tacitly endorses military action. Soldiers don’t always die in war, or even while wearing a uniform. Many memorials like Duke’s don’t differentiate cause of death, so an “active duty” panel may include accidents or non-combat related deaths while stateside, which are no different than the deaths of their civilian counterparts. Browbeating military memorials, or selectively memorializing some service over service per se, is particularly problematic because of the military’s one unifying factor. If there is one thing that unites officer and enlisted, Soldier and Marine, POG and grunt, it’s their conscious decision to involuntarily risk their lives. Often, they disagree with decisions to use violent force, but they honor the oaths they make and subordinate their personal desires to the demands of our union. Ours is a union, it seems, that gets to pick and choose whose and which kind of service they like or don’t like…

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Photo by Les Todd, for Duke Magazine

I spoke to the custodian of memorials not long after reporting the graffiti, who told me there were, in fact, records of alumni who had died in Afghanistan. The reason they hadn’t updated the wall? Money. To be fair, that’s the same reason many people join the military, even if thousands of them live in poverty and rely on food stamps. Duke, in the meantime, has the 15th largest endowment in the nation, worth $7.3B.

Who bears the burden of moral responsibility? You do the math.