Matt Rawlings' grim task in Iraq was to retrieve battered soldiers' bodies from battlefields and load flag-draped coffins on planes for the trip home. The ex-Marine's time with the military mortuary unit showed him the ultimate sacrifice of so many of his brothers and made him more than willing to volunteer for a stateside memorial recalling the fallen.
Rawlings is a senior at Eastern Kentucky University, where an idea was born to read the names of the more than 6,000 Americans killed in the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. He'll lend his voice along with other students, faculty and staff and relatives of veterans who will spend hours on Veterans Day reading the roll call at EKU and 181 other college campuses across the country.
Among the names the former corporal plans to read is that of Marine Master Sgt. Brett Angus, a friend from his days in Iraq. Angus was killed by a roadside bomb in late November 2005.
Earlier that week, Rawlings had celebrated Thanksgiving with Angus and other comrades.
"This Remembrance Day hits close to home," said Rawlings, 29, a six-year Marine who served in Iraq for parts of 2005 and 2006 and hopes to land a security job after graduation. "To me, it signifies that they have not been forgotten."
Eastern Kentucky is a 16,500-student school whose ties to the military are rooted in its long-running Army ROTC program. Some streets on the Richmond campus are named after students killed or wounded in war.
The Nov. 11 roll call has expanded to colleges in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The commemoration, called the Remembrance Day National Roll Call, will include a minute of silence at 2 p.m. Eastern time on all participating campuses.
As of Tuesday, at least 4,483 members of the U.S. military had died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The death toll in Afghanistan was at least 1,704 U.S. service members as a result of the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, according to the AP count.
Along with each name will be the service member's rank. The names will be read within earshot of students strolling to and from classes. Participants hope it resonates with students.
"This kind of helps bring it home," said John Noone, a senior at Western Connecticut State University who served one tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan as a national guardsman. "A lot of these soldiers are the same age as all these college students on campus. They could easily be their friends or their brothers or their sisters."
Brett Morris, the National Roll Call coordinator and EKU's associate director for veterans affairs, said the school had its first roll call last year for all the U.S. war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. The response was so positive he recruited other colleges in hopes of making it a nationwide event this year, he said.
EKU recruited other schools by word of mouth at conferences, emails, notices on websites, phone calls and grassroots marketing, he said.
With so many schools participating, names of the war dead will be read aloud more than 1 million times during the day, Morris said.
"There's a unifying symbolism in it," said Eastern Kentucky President and Army veteran Doug Whitlock. "There's widespread support across the country for the troops in these conflicts, whether you agree with the conflicts or not. ... And this is a salute to them."
The names will be read in chronological order, from the start of the conflict in 2001 in Afghanistan to the most recent casualties.
At his school's ceremony, Noone hopes to read the name of his friend, Army Chief Warrant Officer William Brennan, who died in a helicopter crash in Iraq.
No matter their view about the war, people should find common ground in honoring the fallen soldiers, he said.
"Nobody wants to be out there getting shot at and shooting back at somebody else," he said. "We do it because we're there to protect and fight for our country. And sometimes people get killed for that reason."
Organizers strove to keep the politics of the wars out of the mix, Morris said.
"There's no agenda here," he said. "We're not trying to raise money. We're not trying to say we're for or against the war. We're just saying these people died for us. We ought to remember them and what they've given to us."
EKU senior Amanda Whitney plans to research each fallen service member whose name she's assigned to read, to find out more about them. She already knows about three of them _ the parent of a high school classmate, a family friend and the parent of a girl she babysat.
Whitney, whose father served five tours of duty in Iraq, knows the precariousness of war.
"I've been lucky enough for my father to come back," she said.
At EKU's ceremony, a kiosk will be set up for students to write post cards to troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan. A bagpiper will play "Amazing Grace," there will be a rifle salute and the playing of taps. Several dozen volunteered to read the roll call.
"The reading of the names becomes kind of a touchstone," said Morris, a retired Army officer. "There is no wall for them for people to touch."
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