The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Aggie artist honors veterans, preserves university history

Photo by Photo courtesy of Benjamin Knox and TAMU VRSC

Former astronaut and the Chief Operating Officer at Texas A&M Galveston, Col. Mike Fossum ’80, USAFR (Ret.), and artist, Benjamin Knox, besides Knox’s painting, “Space Force – Semper Supra!” which Fossum is featured in.

Through sacrifices on the battlefield and their dedication in the classroom, Texas A&M has continuously supported student veterans since its opening in 1876.
Hanging in the Don & Ellie Knauss Veteran Resource & Support Center, the “Defenders of Freedom” series provides a unique, artistic perspective on the nation’s infantry. The seven-piece series, painted by local artist Benjamin Knox, Class of 1990, includes six paintings representing the branches of the military: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Space Force. The seventh painting serves as a transition piece for military veterans who chose to become Aggies after their time in the service.
VRSC director Col. Gerald L. Smith, Class of 1982, said during the creative process he met weekly with Knox and a group of A&M students who initially planned out the details of the series on a whiteboard.
“We tried to capture a lot of that Aggie history and connections with the military from the veteran side as opposed to the cadet side,” Smith said. “Each of the paintings has a lot of little nuances that tie in different Aggies.”
Knox said his focus has always been creating inspirational pieces with which people can associate, and pieces that grab at students’ heartstrings of the spirit and camaraderie at A&M.
“I started [painting] 34 years ago, right out of the Corps [of Cadets] dorm, Lacey Hall, and developed from there. By my senior year, it was really taking off,” Knox said. “These go beyond [A&M] because now these are national pieces. But the cool thing is that they’ll always be at the [Memorial Student Center].”
The VRSC is a uniquely tailored service at A&M which provides transitional support for student veterans, active duty, military dependents and survivors. Assessment, marketing and campus programs coordinator Ashley Drake said when students come to the center and see the paintings, she wants them to gain a sense of pride, welcome, acknowledgment and belonging on campus.
“We want them to walk in and know that we recognize that there are individual branches in the service and the history behind each of those individual branches,” Drake said. “We want them to know that we recognize [that] we see them each individually and … [to] know what they have done is appreciated. It is acknowledged that they can have a sense of pride by coming here to [A&M] and coming here to the center.”
Smith said Knox’s paintings reflect the diversity of experiences veterans bring to campus.
“No matter what branch we were in and what our [Military Occupational Speciality] was, we all live by core values that are very similar to [A&M’s] six Core Values,” Smith said. “It was all about selfless service, leadership, excellence, integrity; all those things that we talk about, and respect. While there are seven paintings that identify the military, there’s also seven paintings that really reflect our core values and connect our Aggie Core Values with our military.”
A&M has a rich history of supporting veterans, Smith said.
“I think it goes back to pride,” Smith said. “Benjamin Knox and the students worked very hard to try to include as much of every branch of the military as we could. It’s relatable to not just our student veterans, but any of our veterans because there’s a historical aspect to all of these as well.”
Drake said the student veteran population is currently 1,098 but continues to grow.
“As far as the future of A&M, I think [the series] is going to continue to solidify A&M’s military roots and military history,” Drake said. “Having these paintings on campus and having the center as the population continues to grow [allows student veterans] to come here and see this and still continue to find that [A&M] is a strong supporter of our nation’s military and its veterans, and we are proud to have them among our student population.”
VRSC assistant director Donald Freeman said the paintings allow former students who return to Aggieland the opportunity to reminisce on their time in the service.
“It’s a symbol of our service from [A&M’s] perspective,” Freeman said. “It’s a symbol of our commitment, as a university, to the service of our veterans. It means a lot, not only to me but all the student veterans that come through the halls, whether they’re here for undergraduate studies, professional and master’s degrees and things along those lines. It means a lot to them.
“The fact that the university took this opportunity to pay honor to their individual service branch or branch of service means a lot to them.”
Veteran and history junior David Haney said he often stops at the paintings to reflect on his time in the service.
“I think something to take away is that there’s somebody who, though they were not in the military, used their skills and talents and values and strengths to give back in a way that they could,” Haney said. “In this case, painting pictures and donating them to the VRSC or to the school, because I know [Knox’s] paintings are in other places as well. I just think it’s great to know that somebody went to A&M, gained experience, gained knowledge, gained relationships, deepened themselves and then in some way, shape or form was able to give back to the school.”
Knox said it was important to make artwork honoring those who made sacrifices by serving.
“I looked for Aggie references to put historically,” Knox said. “In terms of showing the spirit of A&M, I would say it’s very much conjoined with this spirit of service and the spirit of benefiting others, but the individual pieces themselves are very much focused on each branch of the military.”
Knox said he wanted the paintings to be inspiring from an artistic and design standpoint, as well as make the subject matter uplifting. Included in the paintings are references to Aggie veterans such as Ensign George Gay, Class of 1938, of Torpedo Squadron 8, Knox said.
“They’re also a history lesson,” Knox said. “We did a tremendous amount of research as a team and came up with key historical subjects and items. I think the inspiration [came from] the appreciation and inspiration of people who have sacrificed time to help protect our freedoms so that we can be artists [and] so that we can pursue our passion.”
Smith said he wants the paintings to be a reminder of A&M’s roots and Core Values.
“When you look at our Core Values and our history and our vision [of] where we want to be and go in the future, where all of that kind of intersects is this very foundational Aggie principle: We serve well, those who have served,” Smith said. “That’s why we always want to have these paintings help us remind us of our past, but also kind of our foundational roots and our core values. We want to continue to serve those who have served us by supporting student veterans and their families.”

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