Veteran's Day illustration: a man saluting and architecture from campus

Spiders who served: Saluting UR veterans

November 9, 2020

University News

Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman

The University of Richmond has a longstanding relationship with those who served in the military. On Veterans Day we look at some notable Spiders and how their service shaped their lives and careers.

Probably the most well-known UR veteran is Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman, who joined the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor as a young man to fight in World War II.

As his unit sailed across the Pacific, its ship endured submarine and air attacks before unloading marines at Okinawa for bloody battles up onto hills and down into caves. When the war ended, “I had grown up from age 17 in the Marine Corps,” he said. “By then I was 19 years old. I was a mature person. I had my own mind.”

In 1971, he became president of the University of Richmond and was charged with steering the institution into a new era. He served in that position until 1986, then again as interim president from 1987 to 1988.

In the wake of his passing in October 2019, praise for his capable leadership sat easily alongside stories of his personal kindness and love of motorcycles, which he rode into his 90s to promote support for veterans. Heilman Dining Center, where he enjoyed lunch with generations of students, bears his name.

First Lt. Robert C. L. Fergusson

Vietnam veteran honored

First Lt. Robert C. L. Fergusson, the first UR graduate to be killed in action during the Vietnam War, is honored with a permanent display of memorabilia, quotes, and other items in the ground floor lobby of Milhiser Gym. 

Fergusson, a 1966 Robins School of Business graduate, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the U.S. Army for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty.

While at UR, he was designated a “distinguished military student” and served as Cadet Commandant of the ROTC. Since the mid-1990s, scholarships in Fergusson’s name have been awarded to UR ROTC cadets, a testament to his legacy.

Fergusson was known for his heroism. In materials gathered for the ceremony, his late father, R.G. Fergusson, who had served as Major General and U.S. Commander in Berlin, said, “He was proud of being a paratrooper, proud of his unit, and dedicated to his country and the cause for which he died.”

Gen. Mark Simerly

On the Korean Peninsula  

Gen. Mark Simerly, a 1984 UR graduate, in 2019  took on perhaps his highest-profile and most complex, politically sensitive assignment yet. He was selected as the commanding officer of the Army’s 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Daegu, South Korea, a role he served in until June 2020.

His primary responsibility was the transport and delivery of goods, supplies, and personnel in a country technically still at war, in a region where peace and security depended on the strength of American defenses.

Despite the distinct possibility that latent, Cold War-era hostilities could erupt at any moment, Simerly was unfazed and, instead, analytical.

“I’ve been in many other places where I felt a much greater imminent danger — Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily,” the brigadier general said. “I don’t have any sense of personal or professional insecurity here.”

J.P. Shannon studied leadership in the Jepson School. Then, says the Army, he exemplified it.

View from Iraq

Dusty, gray, desolate, and “hotter than you can describe” — this is how 1st Lt. Jonathan “J.P.” Shannon, who graduated in 2014, remembers Iraq, where he served from December 2015 through early September 2016. It was his first deployment in the Middle East.

He returned home with the Bronze Star Medal for “superior leadership and dedication to duty.” The award is the fourth-highest individual military award, according to the U.S. Army.

While stationed at Baghdad International Airport, Shannon oversaw all incoming freight. Between two and 10 planes loaded with vehicles, armaments, and equipment arrived daily.

In a typical week, he logged more than 100 hours of work as he and his unit received, catalogued, and inspected the cargo and verified documentation before negotiating final delivery with the Iraqi military, special forces, and other coalition members.

Shannon says that his long hours encouraged the more than 50 service members under his command, who often worked equally long hours alongside him, to import the more than $1.5 billion in equipment. For Shannon, this was a point of pride.

“Our organization became renowned for what we were able to accomplish in short amounts of time,” he says. “This [medal] is their award. I was just doing my job.”

He still thought of himself as a kid when he graduated in 2014. Not anymore.

“I am a combat veteran. That’s a label that sticks with you, for sure.”