DAVENPORT — Sixty-six acres of white headstones fill the Rock Island National Cemetery marking the lives of more than 24,000 veterans interred there.
“All of the graves look the same regardless of rank or background or wealth or religion. But there is a story behind each one,” said St. Ambrose University Professor of Education Dale Blesz. “In some cases, we have some really interesting people buried there who have lived pretty interesting lives. But for the most part, they are ordinary people, some who died very young, who did extraordinary things. There is something sacred about that,” he said.
As a way to honor those veterans and their legacies, the St. Ambrose University Veterans Recruitment and Services Office is leading a yearlong project to collect and share the stories of 300 veterans interred at the Rock Island National Cemetery. Those profiled will have participated in some capacity to uphold American freedom and ideals in a war or conflict dating from the Civil War.
Natalie Woodhurst ’16, the university’s coordinator for Veterans Recruitment and Services, is co-directing the project with Blesz. She said the project will hire 20 St. Ambrose student interns who will spend the next few months scouring military records, library archives, books and newspaper clippings — and, when possible, interview family and friends — to learn about each veteran’s participation and role in the military and their challenges and successes in life. That information will be used to create a curriculum kit holding 300 cards with biographical information about the veteran, including name, rank, branch on the front and a short bio, photograph and a QR code on the back.
The QR code will lead to a page on a website that will provide more information about the veteran, his/her service, and his/her life.
In all, 500 kits will be printed and donated to K-12 schools and public libraries throughout the Quad-City region. In addition, the website will be accessible to anyone in the world.
Woodhurst estimates it will take 3,000 hours of research for the student interns to gather all of the information, write and post it to the website.
In addition, Blesz said the St. Ambrose University School of Education is making sure the kits and lesson plans meet National Council for Social Studies curriculum requirements.
Possible veteran profiles could include former Illinois Congressman Lane Evans, a U.S. Marine who served in the Vietnam War; John Junior Willie, an American Indian who served as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II; and U.S. Navy veteran Eugene Baker, the Chicago Cubs’ second Black player.
The project is expected to be unveiled and celebrated on Veterans Day 2022.