A message from the chancellor: Caring for veterans and our community

Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz reflects on Veterans Day and how our Tar Heel veterans add a perspective that creates richer conversations for everyone.

ROTC cadets stand at attention.
A Veterans Day ceremony was held in front of Memorial Hall on Nov. 11 on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Dear Carolina Community,

Fifty-one years ago, a Mount Airy native named John Spencer returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam. He was wounded — struck in the neck by shrapnel — and flown home after a little more than a year in combat. He was 21 years old.

Spencer’s service to his country should have qualified him for health care, education, and pension benefits, along with the respect and gratitude of his fellow citizens. But he was given an other-than-honorable discharge based on highly questionable, minor disciplinary citations. His status as a veteran became a mark of shame instead of a point of pride.

That changed last week, when Spencer was honored with a long-overdue Purple Heart during a ceremony at the UNC School of Law. Advocates at the Military and Veterans Law Clinic took up Spencer’s case, documenting the injustice of his discharge and restoring the benefits and the honor he was rightly due. “All I really wanted was when they laid me to rest they just drape that flag across my coffin,” Spencer said at the ceremony, explaining why he reached out to the Law School.

It was wonderful to watch Spencer and his family get the recognition they’ve long deserved, and hard to imagine what he must have felt returning home to a tense and ambivalent country all those years ago.

“At the height of the Vietnam War there were few, if any, Veterans Day celebrations like this one on college campuses,” Admiral Dennis Blair said at yesterday’s Veterans Day service outside Memorial Hall. “In the craziness of those times, many citizens did not distinguish between an unpopular war and those of us who followed the lawful orders to fight that war.”

It’s a mark of progress in our society that we’ve learned how to debate and sometimes protest America’s military engagements while respecting those who serve. Admiral Blair teaches in Carolina’s peace, war and defense program, where students gather every day to discuss America’s role in the world. Our veteran students and ROTC cadets are in the thick of those debates, adding perspective that creates a richer conversation for everyone.

“The opportunity to educate student-veterans and military-affiliated students is among the highest honors of the University,” our Board of Trustees proclaimed this month. And one of the ways we earn that honor is by working for a more just and peaceful world. Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, as Admiral Blair reminded us, celebrating the end of “a war it was hoped would be the end of all wars.”

We haven’t realized that hope yet, but we aren’t done trying.


Kevin M. Guskiewicz