Photos courtesy of Col. Michael Hough, commanding officer of UVA’s Air Force ROTC detachment.
A few weeks before a Veterans Day ceremony, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville canceled a gun salute honoring fallen military, citing concerns that students might panic at the sound of gunshots.
The rifle volley, previously performed by veterans from American Legion Post 74, had reportedly been part of UVA’s Veterans Day ceremonies for more than a decade.
UVA’s president, Jim Ryan, explained the university’s rationale for cancelling in a Facebook post on Nov. 9: “First, to minimize disruptions to classes, given that this event is located at the juncture of four primary academic buildings and is held at a time that classes are in session; and second, recognizing concerns related to firing weapons on the grounds in light of gun violence that has happened across our nation, especially on school and university campuses.”
Ryan also noted in his post that the gun salute is not typical of Veterans Day ceremonies. He said it “is not a required, or even typical, part of Veteran’s Day ceremonies—as opposed to Memorial Day ceremonies, which are specifically dedicated to those who have lost their lives in service to our country.”
Some online commenters were supportive of the cancellation, in most cases either because they favored gun control or because they agreed that the gun salute is atypical for this event. But many online commenters expressed dismay at the cancellation of what they considered to be the “ultimate honor” for veterans. Brit Hume, a senior political analyst with Fox News, said on Twitter that he was “embarrassed” by the decision’s panic rationale. Some commenters suggested that professors should use the salute as a learning opportunity for those in class rather than seeing it as a disruption, given its meaning of respect for the fallen.
“Perhaps it takes standing at the grave of a young service person, the same age of many of our students, to understand the gut-wrenching significance” of the gun salute, one woman said on Facebook.
The UVA ceremonies typically included a 24-hour vigil for military prisoners of war and those missing in action, followed by a presentation acknowledging their absence, speeches honoring those currently and formerly in military service, the playing of Taps, and the rifle volley, according to Col. Michael Hough, commanding officer of UVA’s Air Force ROTC detachment.
Hough told America’s 1st Freedom in a phone interview that this was his first year overseeing the UVA ceremony, and he had never seen a rifle volley used in other Veterans Day events. He has since realized the university essentially created its own blended tradition to honor veterans all at once since classes are not typically in session for Memorial Day.
“I didn’t realize it [the rifle volley] meant so much to people,” Hough said. “And there are sensitivities to firing off rifles on campus. But we’re going to take a look at it. We’ll support it if we can. Anything we can do that honors our veterans or our fallen, absolutely it's a good thing.” He said he believes that if students are given enough notice, they will not panic.
Hough described Ryan as being very supportive of the ROTC program, saying the university will support whatever decision the ROTC leadership ultimately makes regarding a rifle volley for next year’s ceremonies. In an email the day after we spoke with him, Hough confirmed that they intend to reinstate this portion of the ceremony.
Note: The UVA Veterans Day gun salute is commonly being reported as a “21-gun” salute, with even the university using this terminology. However, this is not accurate, according to Phil Gramm, adjutant and honor guard member of American Legion Post 74, which has previously conducted the ceremony. He explained that a 21-gun salute is performed with artillery (cannons) rather than rifles and is typically used to honor dignitaries. The rifle salute uses between three and seven rifles firing in unison three times for military funerals and other ceremonies honoring the fallen. Because the rifle salute is frequently performed with seven rifles firing three times, totaling 21 shots, it is often confused with the 21-gun salute.