Veterans' memories documented for Library of Congress
November 11, 2011
In The News
Eau Claire Leader Telegram
By Eric Lindquist
Veterans, Uncle Sam wants you - again.
But instead of returning to active duty, this time the federal government just wants you to serve your country by talking about your experience in the military.
The recruiting pitch is part of the Veterans History Project, a superpower-sized treasure trove of first-hand accounts from U.S. veterans. The collection, maintained by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., includes stories from about 78,000 veterans and is the nation's largest oral history project.
The legislation creating the project was drafted in 2000 by U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, who calls it one of his proudest accomplishments in a 15-year career in Congress. The collection, which also includes photographs, memoirs, letters, diaries, artwork and other original materials, is celebrating its 11th anniversary on this Veterans Day with the once-in-a-lifetime date: 11/11/11.
"The purpose is to collect and preserve wartime memories and make them available to the public," said project director Bob Patrick. "We want veterans to talk about what we call the human experience of war - what they did, what they saw and what they felt."
One of the biggest hurdles the Library of Congress faces in expanding the project relates to the reticence of many former servicemen and servicewomen to recognize the significance of their personal contributions.
"This isn't just about the grand and the glorious events that you see in movies," said Patrick, a retired U.S. Army colonel. "Everybody's story is important."
The message, Kind added, is that all veterans make a sacrifice by joining a cause greater than themselves.
"They all had a role to play in order to secure our nation," he said.
In addition to being a resource for researchers, historians and educators, the remembrances also can be beneficial and fascinating for the immediate families of participating veterans, Kind said, noting that he calls many veterans "silent heroes" because they don't talk much about their time in the military.
The project was born in Kind's backyard in La Crosse, where he was sitting around a picnic table listening when his father, Elroy, a Korean War-era veteran, and uncle, Don, a World War II veteran, started telling war stories.
"I asked them to wait and ran into the house to get the video camera," Kind said. "I wanted to preserve that family history for my two little boys (now in eighth and ninth grades)."
Recognizing that many people don't ask veterans to talk about their experiences until it's too late, Kind thought the concept should be expanded nationwide, and the legislation to create the project whisked through Congress.
"It's really the last ask of a grateful nation to our veterans - to share their story before they take it with them," Kind said.
The interviews - about one in seven of which are digitized and accessible over the Internet - don't need to be anything fancy.
"We're not looking for Ken Burns productions here," Patrick said. "It's as simple as what Congressman Kind did: Grab your video camera, find a quiet place and ask a veteran about his or her experiences."
Kind personally has conducted a number of interviews with western Wisconsin veterans, and his office is making a renewed push this year to get school classes and community organizations to interview local veterans, particularly those who served in Vietnam, for the project.
DeLong Middle School recently committed to having seventh-grade students conduct some of the interviews. The first one took place Wednesday when students Carrie Schmitz and Emily Pepperl asked 87-year-old veteran Marcy Hennig of Eau Claire to talk about her experience in the Navy during World War II.
"I think it's really cool that kids get to do the interviews because then we get to learn about it," Schmitz said.
The students were captivated as Hennig explained how she and droves of American women joined the war effort at home because male service members were needed to fight in both Europe and the Pacific. After making it through boot camp and additional training, the then-20-year-old Hennig served as a secretary from 1944 to 1945 at Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle.
"The men could go in and do their duty, and we felt the need to do the same," Hennig told the girls, whose class eventually will send audio recordings of the interviews to the Library of Congress.
Hennig brought along several photos from her time in the military, including a shot that appeared on the front page of the Seattle Times of her joining a crowd in Seattle celebrating the news that the war was over in 1945.
"It was supposed to have been a war to end all wars, but as you know it didn't do it," she told her interviewers, shaking her head regretfully.
Hennig also supported the idea of students interviewing local veterans for the project.
"I think the generation now should realize what those who came before them did in order to give them their freedom," Hennig said.
John Urice of the town of Seymour, another of the 975 Wisconsin veterans whose stories are archived as part of the project, gave an interview earlier this year about his Army service from 1968 to 1972.
He talked about his experience as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry division in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War and also about how he served with a unit charged with maintaining nuclear missiles scattered around southern Florida as protection against the possibility of an attack by Cuban war planes.
"I hadn't talked about some of those things until I did the interview," Urice said. "I found it very cathartic, which I didn't realize it would be until I started talking about it."
Eau Claire County veterans service officer Clifton Sorenson said he has been promoting participation in the project for years because he believes it's vital to preserve the memories of veterans.
"It's extremely important to remember the legacy of the sacrifices of our military men and women in uniform," Sorenson said. "These are amazing stories that will stay with us forever."
**Follow link to video of veteran being interviewed by DeLong students