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, www.loc.gov/vets/memoirkit.html, 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.
Historian Clara Stewart has gathered many personal accounts and local history that would otherwise have been lost. Identifying people in local photos is a specialty of Stewart’s and she has played a major role in unraveling historical mysteries. Photos are a great part of interviews, both the veterans’ pictures and select pictures from books brought by the interviewer that may help prompt conversations.
School teachers across the nation, including Glenn Rappleyea, former high school social sciences educator at South Kortright Central School, encouraged students through assignment to interview local veterans. Many of his pupils throughout his career learned a great deal, not only about soldiers’ experiences in war, but personal histories of family members, neighbors and community members that they previously knew nothing about. Students were often humbled and awed by the experiences, places traveled and training their veterans have had, creating a sense of respect that would never have been absorbed through text book reading, he said.
Hearing a veteran tell their story of, for example, the attack on Pearl Harbor, takes the listener far beyond the statistics of numbers, percentages, locations and strategies. Someone present on that fateful day in Hawaii talking to you in person would be able to describe the weather, where she was, what she was doing, the sounds, sights, confusion, terror, heroism, things that even the best books cannot capture.
Henderson refers to these historical details as capturing a deeper feeling for what this person has done for us all. Finding out about where the veterans came from, did they miss their families, what was their favorite military food and what did they most look forward to upon their return home, and simply, what was it like living in those times is important. Henderson explains that these are the sort of questions to ask instead of questions that allow for only a yes or no answer.
World War II veterans are becoming more difficult to find and interview, but when a veteran passes away, their history is not lost and information can still be gathered. LaFever suggested contacting family members, military units where the veteran served and find out about reunion groups and websites that the veteran might have been associated with. Asking the veterans family members for help with the project can become an great source of details with artifacts, photos, journals, scrapbooks and stories that have been passed down.
Interviewing a veteran may initially sound like an easy project, especially with the expert advice given above to get you started. I
f you would like to find out more details about how to conduct an interview with a veteran and even submit the interview to become a part of the National Archives, there are many resources, but one in particular is www.loc.gov/vets/memoirkit.html, where anyone can learn about the Veterans History Project, referred to as VHP. It began in 2000 and gives guidance to individuals, educators, students, Eagle Scouts and veterans organizations about the importance of gathering these histories and how to go about doing it.
The VHP website offers guidelines on preparing for an interview, what questions are most helpful to ask and access to interviews that have already been submitted that can be the best guides of all. For readers who want to learn more, the site offers many resources for how to submit information not just from veterans but any person who played an active role in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War in addition to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
Of all the great things to be gained from interviewing a veteran and recording his history, perhaps one of the most powerful, the most important is capturing details that may otherwise be overlooked.
Stories told often include humor, sadness, background history and impressions of things seen for the first time. Most valuable of all is the insight offered by someone who has had years of life since the war experience and time to reflect on its impact and meaning.
Their wisdom and perspective is the prize from which we can all benefit.