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Citadel unveils war memorial to fallen alumni: 'It's doing them justice'

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Cadets in The Citadel's Class of 1967 would often pause to pray or silently reflect as a regimental commander read them the name of yet another Citadel graduate who had died in the Vietnam War. They would stop to consider the price that was paid.

"By the time our class reached our junior and senior years, those names were not just names to us. They became somebody that we knew," said Joseph J. Keenan, a member of the class of 1967.

After they graduated, as other college graduates celebrated the Summer of Love in San Francisco, many Citadel men were on active duty. Keenan's class alone would lose 10 members by the war's end.

Honoring their classmates among the 760 Citadel alumni killed in action in U.S. wars, the Class of 1967 unveiled a 50-year anniversary gift to their alma mater Friday afternoon in a somber ceremony: the Citadel War Memorial, a black granite edifice with every name engraved.

Just before the ceremony, the sound of bagpipes and low conversation filled the air as classmates reunited at the site of the memorial beside Summerall Chapel.

David Alger and Carl Castellano, graduates of the class of 2007 who both went on to serve in the Marine Corps, agreed that the memorial was long overdue.

"It's disappointing that there are enough people that you need a memorial, but it is good that they're getting the proper recognition," Alger said.

"It's doing them justice," Castellano added.

Like many Citadel alumni at the ceremony, Alger and Castellano knew people whose names were inscribed on the wall. Graduates of the public military college have died in every U.S. conflict since the Mexican-American War, including heavy casualties in the Civil War and World War II.

For now, the final name on the wall belongs to Army Sgt. Aaron X. Wittman, class of 2007, who was killed in January 2013 in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. His father, retired Maj. Duane Wittman, traveled to see the memorial with his family Friday.

He said he was moved to tears when Mitchell Lee Wetherington, a 2010 graduate and current contestant on "The Voice," performed an original song titled "Long Gray Line" with the Citadel Chamber Choir.

"I thank the class of '67 and everybody else that was involved that put this together," Wittman said. "This was a long time in coming."

At the prompting of their classmate, retired Lt. Gen. W. Michael Steele, the Class of 1967 began raising funds for the memorial five years ago. Other graduating classes pitched in toward the $1 million fundraising effort. The Citadel Foundation also helped and worked to verify every name.

Friday's ceremony was held during the Class of 1967's 50th reunion and the start of homecoming weekend.

The memorial's planners tapped John Gardner, a Vietnam War veteran who worked for 20 years as The Citadel's resident architect, to design it. Gardner already has designed several iconic structures on campus, including the rebuilt Padgett-Thomas barracks.

He came out of retirement to design the memorial and said it will be his final project.

Gardner had never designed a memorial before, but he considered it an honor. He took his cues from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and also included elements that reflect Charleston and The Citadel.

He hired the Charleston company Frazier's Ironworks to create an iron "sword gate," similar in design to the iconic Summerall Gate at one of the school's entrances.

"Today is my last day at The Citadel," Gardner said. "It's absolutely humbling. What architect Vietnam veteran is allowed to do this? One in a million."

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

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