The Fallen Soldiers Project, spearheaded by English faculty Rachel Blue Ankney at CCA, isn’t about recounting the loss of military members killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years as much as remembering these soldiers as human beings.
Or, to put it another way: It’s about capturing the essence of these brave men and women in printed form as their families continue to see them in their mind’s eye.
These written legacies emanate from conversations with the people closest to these soldiers, a difficult task taken on by students in an English 121 class that quickly is turning beginning writers to serious-minded documentarians. The essays were completed on October 23 and are now being graded.
Uncomfortable phone calls, social-media inquiries and visits to the homes of families – who never are pressed to participate but asked to do so willingly – are among the methodologies hoisted upon these students in pursuit of capturing the essence of these heroic men and women who served.
The overriding goal, when successful, is providing a document that ensures that Colorado soldiers killed in action are remembered for the quirks, hobbies, motivations, and senses of humor that embodied them beyond a stock military mug shot.
“When I read some of these pieces it’s a reminder of why I do what I do and why my colleagues do their jobs, because it’s making a difference for everyone involved,” said Ankney, who began the project as a former faculty member at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach for five years and unveiled the idea at CCA this fall.
“There are times when I’m definitely falling apart and it’s hard. And you have to grade it. But when you get away from the grade book and think about the magnitude and the effort of the students then, to me, it becomes something so much bigger than I ever hoped.”
The project began with Ankney compiling a list from non-profit organization iCasualties.org that records the numbers and names of deceased Colorado soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Students then are asked to choose one of the people listed on the website and begin researching, through the Internet, White Pages, and other means in an attempt to reach out to friends and family of these late military personnel.
Students that are successful in finding those close connections are told specifically not to ask about the circumstances behind their chosen soldier’s demise when speaking with those who knew them best. Instead, the questions are more a voyage of discovery, built from the ground up by childhood stories, special bonds, charitable hearts, and more, until a realistic picture of the men and women who served takes shape.
“We want to give vitality to these people,” Ankney said. “This is who they were, and this is who they will always be for eternity.”
Many of the students who take Ankney’s composition class entered the endeavor having little or no experience writing essays, or have not done something similar for a long stretch. Class members interviewed almost unanimously spoke of having little to no expectations for English 121, but suddenly, they were sucked in – first by writing a paper that looked inward at their own experiences, and then outside themselves with their papers on a late military member.
“I have family members in the Air Force and a grandfather who is a veteran,” said student Shannon McKay. “None of my family died, so it’s different. It’s given me a whole different respect for families who do lose somebody.”
Student Brenda Chavez got more than she bargained for in Ankney’s class when she found herself in the home of a fallen hero, face-to-face in an interview with his widow. She looked at old pictures that revealed his personality. She looked up at the walls to see numerous photos of him. But it really hit home when, in the corner of the room, the boots the deceased soldier wore at the time of his death – cleaned and returned by a member of his company – sat in the corner of the room.
“It gave me goosebumps,” she said, adding that learning about “a really goofy guy who had a really humorous personality” washed away any awkwardness of interviewing someone she didn’t know.
Chavez also felt that her sit-down with the widow did her good by helping with the healing process.
“They still want people to know about their loved ones. They want to keep them alive here.”
Over the years, Ankney figures that between 100-200 soldiers have been profiled.
“My hope is always that the students realize that their words can carry some power, that their words can carry sincerity, and their words can carry a record of people in society that we don’t often stop and contribute to.”
That latter point is definitely not lost on student Phil Dizon, who as a specialist in the Army serving in Afghanistan in 2009 was twice hit by improvised explosive devices that led to his honorable discharge from the military. His frustration boiled over when he returned to the United States only to realize that many people were unaware that American troops still were fighting and dying in Afghanistan at the time.
Telling the stories of these soldiers’ lives is invaluable, he said. Dizon’s own paper was written about a team leader in his own company that died.
“I know what it was like in the military and already knew soldiers could be one thing in uniform and another out of it. But I find it really cool all the different aspects of people who join the military and become one in uniform.”
Seeing his classmates discover those dichotomies is “a really good thing.”
“I’ve never done something this significant,” fellow student Candace Pollard said. “This is a really important subject. I just want to do a good job so that the family will be honored by my story. I want them to know I’ve been inspired by someone I didn’t even know.”