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November 9, 2013

Stories to be told: Experts offer tips to capture veterans' tales

Veterans Day is a time to honor all those who have served our nation. Take time on Monday to honor them by learning from their experiences.

Hearing details of historical wartime events from a veteran puts a very personal view on the conflict, offering insight far beyond the documented overview. Personal accounts of events also give military experts and historians more accurate (and sometimes the only) detailed information available.

Local author, speaker and historian Mary Jane Henderson has a great deal of experience in gathering information through her involvement in local historical preservation, presentations and publications. Henderson explained that gathering personal accounts from veterans is similar to gathering any information through interviews. She said that it is about getting to know the person, makeing the interview atmosphere more like a friendly social call. Remember that you are a guest requesting information, so in addition to courtesy and respectfulness, send a thank-you card after the interview, advised Henderson. Since information gathered may include a birth date, send an annual birthday card or a holiday card as you would to anyone you know well and are grateful to.

Ray LaFever, historical archivist at Delaware County Historical Association, offered some key components to a successful interview with a veteran. Go prepared, research general information ahead of time and have a list of questions prepared. LaFever explained that the best way to obtain the information is in-person, sitting down face-to-face. The national government’s website on capturing history through interviews, through the Veterans History Project,, aligns with LaFever’s advice. Conducting in-person interviews as opposed to mail, emails or telephone makes it possible to read body language and pick up on slight changes in voice.

Interviewing a person on his or her past experiences can bring up memories and emotions that are painful. LaFever emphasized being respectful of the veteran being interviewed. If he feels uncomfortable about a certain subject or says he does not want to speak about an event, politely drop that line of questions immediately. Pressing on with a sensitive point can put an end to the entire interview where redirecting to other subjects will allow the interview to continue. LaFever also mentioned that there is some information that may be too personal to include, especially the veteran’s specific current information such as address, phone number, health status and belongings from war time that may be valuable.

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