Union honors student veterans

Strengthening students for a service-driven life is at the core of Union College's mission. Amid wars and rumors of war, one professor found time to honor students who served their country.

“In the 26 years I’ve been teaching at Union, we’ve never honored military veterans who are also our students,” said Bill Fitts, professor of English and himself a veteran of the Vietnam conflict. “We have around 15 veterans in addition to children of vets in the student body this year. I decided it was time we pay tribute to these folks for their sacrifice and service.”

On Nov. 10, a day before Veterans Day, Fitts worked with a team to coordinate the first student veteran recognition ceremony. The program consisted of speeches, prayer, music and recognition of service.

Following Fitts’ historical presentation, guest speaker Jamie Obrecht took the stage. A Vietnam Marine veteran who leads an outreach program for military veterans in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, Obrecht encouraged the multigenerational vets present to encourage one another.

Fitts then read each student veteran’s name, service branch and Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) as each stood in front of his or her service branch flag. Honored audience members also included one World War II and two Korean War veterans.

Current student veterans represented a variety services and specialties including a combat engineer, airborne reconnaissance, combat medics, a ground ambulance and flight medic; Navy coremen; a Navy corewoman with specialization in internal medicine and urology, a Marine core mortar man and rifle squad leader.

“It was great,” said Shaun Kirby, junior religion and social work major and Air Force aviation resource management vet. “It was an automatic bonding experience because it’s something we have done that truly cost us something in our lives.”

As the program closed with prayer, there was no room for words—just tears. “That’s how much it means for someone in the service to hear a simple thank you,” Kirby explained.

Union College's Medical Cadet Program

Union College students from the 1940s train in the Medical Cadet Corps.

There was a time in Union's history when the school actively prepared students to be soldiers—not to use weapons, but to save lives on the battlefield. Everett Dick, long time Union professor and World War I veteran, started working at Union after his military service. Concerned about another world war, Everett convinced the college administration to create a program to train young adults to be medics in the military. 

Dick wanted to give Adventist young men medical training so they could easily move into a medic's role when drafted—one of the few roles open to conscientious objectors who refused to carry weapons. As the chair of the program committee, Dick recruited an Army major to train students in combat first aid—carrying litters, splinting, bandaging and administering morphine.

The program became known as the Medical Cadet Corps and soon expanded to Pacific Union College, Walla Walla College (now Walla Walla University), Atlantic Union College, Southern Missionary College (Southern Adventist University), Emmanuel Missionary College (Andrews University) and the College of Medical Evangelists (Loma Linda University).

When the United States joined World War II in 1941, Adventist institutions were already preparing young men to serve, and they saved countless lives. Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist and World War II medic, was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honor in the United States.

“I had not been Adventist for very long when I was drafted for the Vietnam War,” said Fitts. “In the midst of our physical and occupational training, I realized there were people who already knew how to do medical tasks.”

To Fitts’ surprise, these men were trained through one of the Adventist Medical Cadet Corps programs. The company sergeant, the platoon leader and squad leader were all Adventist.

“We were at the cutting edge of preparing people to be medics and care men,” said Fitts.

While Union College no longer runs a Medical Cadet Corps, academic programs like international rescue and relief, physicians assistant studies, nursing, education, social work and many others still empower Union College students for lives of service their nation and humanity.