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Telling their story is their story

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (April 12, 2007) -- The folks at The Veterans History Project, part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, make it their mission to tell the story of America's military veterans.

The VHP personnel don't actually tell the story themselves, however. Veterans tell their own stories. Instead, the Project provides guidance for those who record the stories of veterans, and then provides archival services for them. The Project also makes some of those stories available on their Web site for Americans to read, watch and listen to.

A woman sits at a desk that has folders and photographs on it. Behind her is a metal cart full of outgoing mail.
Megan Harris of the Veterans History Project prepares a veteran's documents for archiving.

Today, the VHP exists to collect the stories of America's war veterans and to make them available to military members, families, researchers, school children, and all Americans, said Program Director Bob Patrick.

"The purpose is to provide a kind of ground-level look at what happens during war -- from the good, to the not-so-good, to the tedious nature of war -- and allow viewers to experience it in first person context," Patrick said. "Too often we have war told to us through historians. There is nothing wrong with that, but it kind of gets filtered down through the eyes of historians or somebody's report or something like that. But hearing it first hand, you really kind of appreciate it from another aspect what the war is all about."

The VHP uses volunteer "interviewers" that go out into their own communities and ask military veterans to talk about their military histories. Those sessions are recorded onto video tape and sent back to the Project along with any other documentation, photography or correspondence veterans are willing to donate, Patrick said.

"It is a voluntary effort nationwide that goes out and collects these either audio or video interviews, as well as other documentation that veteran's may have of a personal nature, such as diaries, memoirs or photographs," Patrick said.

During the interviews, interviewers try to elicit as much of a veteran's military experience as possible, not just dates and places, but experiences, personal feelings and motivations for doing the things they did.

"We tell people it is as easy as having a conversation at a kitchen table, and in a lot of ways, that is how a lot of these interviews are done," Patrick said. "We like to get their military experience from beginning to end. What motivated them to get into the military in the first place and what were their experiences in basic training? Inevitably, the question we ask at the end is: What did your military service mean to you, and how did it reflect your life? Most will say, particularly the WWII generation, that it was an important thing."

One common theme from interviewees, especially amongst World War II veterans, is that their military experience took them from their home and showed them a world they would never have seen had they not enlisted, Patrick said.

"It put them into a new environment," Patrick said. "That is what WWII did for people all over the country. From farm boys in Iowa to the guys from Brooklyn, to the guys out West -- it completely lifted them up and threw them in with people from around the country, took them overseas, and to places they've never seen before. From that respect, it was a life changing experience."

Another common theme among WWII veterans, Patrick said, is humility.

"The WWII guys are pretty humble," he said. "You ask them what they did and they say they didn't do anything. And you get to talking to them and they tell you they hit the beach at Normandy, they fought through the hedgerows, or were a ball turret gunner in a B-17. They say they didn't do anything, but they did quite a bit."

The VHP has now collected about 50,000 histories from military veterans as far back as World War I, though only about 45,000 of those histories have yet to be cataloged and archived. About two-thirds of the collection consists of accounts from WWII veterans. The Project has put special emphasis on those veterans, in part because fewer and fewer of them are around, and their numbers are dwindling -- just over 3 million veterans from that war are still alive today, said Patrick. In the future, the Project will shift focus to later wars, as those veterans are now getting older as well.

"We are losing just under 1,000 WWII veterans a day," Patrick said. "And a lot of those guys fought in Korea as well. That is the next wave of veterans we are going to lose. So we are probably going to be focusing on Korea and Vietnam vets next. In a couple of years we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of American's involvement in Vietnam. That will bring some focus on things."

Still, the Project does collect histories from modern day veterans. The collection includes some 300 interviews from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Airmen today are encouraged to submit their own histories. But if they are not yet ready to do that, they can still assist the Project by encouraging their own family members or friends who are veterans to participate -- because military veterans have a special way of getting other military veterans to talk about their own war experiences, Patrick said.

"We've talked to people who say a veteran won't talk to them, but will talk to their nephew who has been in the military," he said. "It's kind of this 'you understand' thing. As a military veteran, you have some understanding of what I went through because you've been in the military. Airmen can talk to the veterans in their family -- everybody can talk to the veterans in their family -- but veteran to veteran. They can help them tell their stories, which are still very relevant."

The VHP is a congressionally mandated program that began in 2000, the result of legislative action sponsored by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).

"Congressman Kind was literally sitting in his back yard with his dad and uncle at a family picnic, and the dad and uncle started swapping war stories," Patrick said. "A lot of the things he had never heard before. So he got his video camera out to record them, so the kids would have them. The light kind of went on for him that these stories are happening all over the country, and that these stories are important to hold on to."

The Library of Congress, like other libraries around the world, struggles to find a place in the new information age -- competing with the immediacy and instant access of the Internet, said Patrick. To that end, the VHP has taken some of the more that 45,000 histories already recorded and digitized them for publication online at the Project's Web site at⁄vets.

"We are trying to make it accessible through our Web site where you can go in and see and hear these interviews and see the accompanying documents," Patrick said. "That is how we are trying to push it out, to make it accessible."

The cost of converting those histories to digital format is formidable, Patrick said. And so far, only about 4,000 have been posted online. Most will remain in paper archives or on VHS cassette tape for historians to research. Despite the restrictive cost, every veteran that has done an interview will have a searchable military history data sheet available on the Project's Web site. In that way, researches can at least find a veteran by name, and then go to the Library of Congress personally to view the video interview and supporting materials.

Patrick says he estimates that only about 5 percent of the collection will be entirely digitized.

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