Those who fought and died during World War I were remembered for their service during a special ceremony at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith on Thursday.

The UAFS Student Veterans Organization held a ceremony commemorating the planting of a two year-old willow oak tree at Wenderoth Park on campus in collaboration with local veterans groups. A media advisory from UAFS Director of Public Information John Post said the university was granted the tree from the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas World War I Centennial Committee and the Department of Arkansas Heritage after a joint effort by the organizations to honor World War I veterans across the state by donating a tree to a location in each county.

Carrie Mize, the president of the Student Veterans Organization, said those who were present for the event were there to honor and remember the 53,402 soldiers who gave their lives during World War I. World War I, she said, was an unprecedented war filled with bloodshed, devastation and loss.

"This fiery trial, as President Wilson called it, happened 100 years ago," Mize said. "Civilization itself hung in the balance. Even though, as Wilson said, it was distressing and oppressive to duty, this war was a fight for democracy, for the right of those who submit to have authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the right and liberties of small nations, for peace and safety to all nations and to make the world itself at last free." 

Some 71,863 soldiers from Arkansas served in World War I after the United States joined the conflict in 1917, Mize said. Arkansans fought to defend the people of France and Belgium, suffering 2,183 casualties during the war. Three Arkansans were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously — Marcellus Holmes Chiles, Oscar Franklin Miller and John Pruitt.

"This tree is planted in remembrance of those who bravely and unselfishly gave their lives, and paved the way for many modern advances we still use in our military structures today," Mize said. "... Let this tree be a reminder to us to uphold the values and principles these great soldiers set before us, and to look forward to a peaceful and brighter future."

Soil from the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France was used to plant the tree. Kimberley DeBar, vice president of the Student Veterans Organization, said the cemetery contains the largest number of America's fallen military from World War I. A total of 14,246 soldiers are buried there, most of whom lost their lives during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918.

"There is a tablet at this cemetery listing 954 names of missing soldiers," DeBar said. "As we pause to remember those we lost in World War I, I will leave you with a quote from the American Expeditionary Forces commander who led those men in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Gen. John Pershing, 'A nation that does not protect its citizens both at home and abroad cannot long endure.'"

The ceremony also featured special guest speaker Lee Krehbiel, the UAFS vice chancellor for student affairs and title IX coordinator. The tree was planted by Russell Huskey and Justin Hoopengarner of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. In front of the tree is a small plaque that reads, "This Tree is dedicated to those who made the ultimate sacrifice while protecting the freedoms of the world."