When Service and Death Collide: Transcending Tragedy - A Call for a National Service Memorial

A defining moment of my childhood was the night my father left and returned with tears in his eyes for a closed-door conversation with my mother. No one talked to us kids, but we figured it out (as kids almost always do): my dad had accompanied an army official to let a member of his congregation know that his son, who was serving in Vietnam, had been killed in action.

I cannot imagine what parents go through when a child goes off to war. Every day, and perhaps every moment of every day, might well be consumed by a deep feeling of fear, worry that any moment an officer and a chaplain might park in front of the house and walk up to the door. No matter how much one might prepare to hear such news, it cannot soften the pain or the tragedy that occurs when someone is killed.

Safety and the fear of death are paramount on the minds of parents of soldiers. When a son or daughter leaves on deployment, a service trip, or commits a year to do something like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps, there is little preparation for families. And there is probably no way to prepare for the possibility of it ending tragically.

The death of three students from Columbia University who died recently while serving in Ecuador marks the unthinkable. These college students and their instructors were on their way to the airport when their bus tumbled into a ravine. In addition to killing Olivia Erhardt, a student at Columbia University, Daneilla Moffson, a student at Barnard, and Abigail Flanagan, a nurse practitioner at Columbia University Medical Center and a student at Columbia, the accident injured several others.

As the President of the Bonner Foundation, I was a part of launching and supporting thousands of service placements and trips that took students and faculty across the street and around the world. One of the most inspiring aspects of my life is hearing college students share about the ways their service work has transformed lives. While someone dying was always a possibility, it seemed so rare and unlikely, until it actually happened.

When it does happen, questions race through the mind...

How could something so horrible happened to such good people?

Why were these students out there in such a dangerous place?

Why don't we put an end to these dangerous service trips and just stay at home?

These are all questions that are being asked and need to be addressed.

Why does something so terrible happen to good people doing important work? It is an ageless and painful question that gets asked and never answered. The truth is that those who are doing important work are not uniquely protected from mechanical failure, random violence, human error and what is often chalked up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As to why there are students in such dangerous places, the answer is because they chose to be. A great deal of thought and preparation goes into these kinds of trips and this journey to Honduras was no exception. Columbia University was diligent in selecting a capable partner agency to help with logistics and details, including safety. That partner, Global Brigades, has spent years developing relationships and building up a program which, up until that point, had offered a safe and rewarding experience for its more than 35,000 volunteers. It may sound callous, but it happens. It happens in the developing world, and it happens in the wealthiest of neighborhoods here in the US.

And why don't we just stay at home and just do our service here? We should be serving in our local communities, but we also need be serving throughout the world. Service experiences that take individuals out of their comfort zone and familiar experience often are the basis for life changing events and transformative thinking that has a life-long impact on career choices, faith formation, and community connections. We have to be careful, but we also must stay engaged.

Responding to Grief: Building a Living Legacy

Nothing can be more painful than losing a child. When a child is lost in the name of a good cause, there is something that needs to be remembered, and something that needs to be kept alive.

My inspiration for how parents respond to the unthinkable comes from Jim and Linda Hunt and their son-in-law, Aaron Ausland. Their daughter, Krista, finished college, married Aaron, taught at an inner-city high school, and then accepted a three-year service position in rural Bolivia.

Six months after they arrived in Bolivia, Krista and Aaron were traveling in a speeding bus that plunged down a mountain ravine. Aaron was injured, but lived; Krista, then 25, was killed.

But rather than sue the organization that sent them, or the bus company, or begin a campaign warning service-minded young adults to stay home, Krista's family chose to
create a living legacy that honored and continued Krista's hopes for service.

Sharing her inspiring vision, they began the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, which
offers support to other young adult leaders who commit to a year or more of volunteer service with agencies, either in the US or in developing nations. Each year, 17 young leaders are selected into their innovative Krista Colleague mentoring community which provides support throughout (and after) their service experience. At conferences and debriefing retreats, they receive global citizen skills training, service-leadership grants, and nationally-recognized post-service transition support for several years.

Begun in 1999, Krista Colleagues have now provided service leadership in 46 countries and over 47 American cities with 123 different organizations. Today, alumni continue their global leadership as lawyers, public health advocates, artists, entrepreneurs, bi-lingual teachers, scientists and non-profit leaders.

Another story of tragedy and transformation occurred in the Biehl family. After graduating from Stanford, Amy Biehl traveled to South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar with the intent of developing voter registration programs. The day before she was to return home, she was caught in a riot and killed by mob violence. Responding to her death, Amy's parents established the Amy Biehl Foundation. The Foundation works in and around Cape Town to advocate for access to education, equal employment, and health services. Additionally, it reaches out to more than 11,800 youth in the Cape Town area, providing after-school programs featuring activities like music, dance, drama, sports, crafts and HIV/AIDS peer education. As a testament to the Biehl's commitment to reconciliation, two of the men convicted of their daughter's murder and are now working for the Foundation.

These families said "yes" to their daughters' lives rather than "no" to the idealism and service that they gave their lives for.

A Call to Create a National Service Memorial

The landscapes of cities and towns around the world are filled with memorials for soldiers who have died while serving their country. As we honor our fallen soldiers, I wonder: why not also honor those who died while doing community service.

Why should there not be a national monument honoring those who gave their lives in service to the world, not only through the military, but through the service programs that exist in our high schools, colleges, congregations and country?

A location could be identified; it wouldn't have to be in Washington DC. Maybe it could be hosted at a university or large national non-profit or some other place where it would be taken seriously.

Every year a list of names could be engraved in the monument while a simultaneous memorial service was held.

Families would be asked to create story boards, so as to capture, share and honor the powerful yet unfinished stories of the lives that have been lost.

The community of people that the memorials would convene would offer opportunities for support, fellowship and innovation.

Rev. Dr. King wrote that everybody could be great because everyone can serve. Those who give their last full measure of devotion through their service work should be recognized and remembered accordingly. If you want more information about creating the National Service Memorial, please visit www.nationalservicememorial.org.