The success of the Veterans History Project (VHP), numbering over 96,000 collections in 2015, is dependent on the hard work and generosity of volunteer interviewers. Whether working individually or as part of an organization, VHP relies on their contributions. In recognition of those efforts, we present a handful of oral histories within the context of the volunteer interviewers who captured them. Below, we offer a bit of the backstory on those individuals on the other side of the camera or tape recorder, without whom these stories might otherwise have been lost. To these interviewers, and to all who have contributed to VHP: thank you. This project would not exist without you. [read news release]
The American Red Cross has been providing support to the military and its veterans since it was founded, and participating in the Veterans History Project is part of this long legacy of service. Arnold Van Ek, a volunteer with the American Red Cross office in Houston, Texas, began interviewing veterans for VHP in 2011. Motivated to conduct interviews as a way of honoring veterans, he has made it a family affair: his 15-year-old grandson sometimes assists him with camera operation. In this interview, he speaks with Army Captain Clena Marie Abuan, who served in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Though military service was in her family—her father fought in the Philippine Army with MacArthur’s forces, and survived the Bataan Death March—she still considered herself an unlikely candidate to attend West Point, and nearly dropped out after a month there. Convinced by an instructor to persevere, she went on to serve in communications with the Signal Corps; in her interview, she discusses her living conditions in Iraq, her “military family,” and her experience as a woman in a field dominated by men.
Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers provide invaluable services to veterans—including facilitating VHP interviews. VAMC-San Diego has contributed over 60 oral history interviews, including this interview with World War II veteran Norman Wesley Achen, conducted by interviewer Carl Cox. First Lieutenant Achen enlisted in the Army Air Corps to become a fighter pilot, and got his wish: he went on to fly a P-51 Mustang in the European Theater. Shot down in August 1944, he crashed his plane into a field, and awoke staring down the barrel of a local farmer’s gun. Following his capture and interrogation, he spent several months in prison camp Stalag III, but mounted a successful escape attempt during a forced prisoner march in late spring 1945. In his interview, he describes an incident involving targeting a German staff car during a bombing run, and struggling with the knowledge of the deaths his mission had caused.
Many Boy Scouts choose to participate in the Veterans History Project as part of their Eagle Scout service projects. Because these service projects must demonstrate leadership skills and benefit their community, they often require the candidate to wrangle multiple interviews and interviewers—no small feat. Christopher Hudson, an Eagle Scout candidate from Annapolis, Maryland, submitted 16 collections to the Veterans History Project in 2010, including this interview with Vietnam veteran John H. Fellowes, conducted by James Turner. A Navy pilot, Fellowes chose to specialize in aviation because he didn’t much care for the rocking and rolling of a ship. Shot down in 1966, he spent the next six and a half years as a prisoner of war (POW), during which he was interned in a number of POW camps, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He credits his survival to his fellow prisoners, and their unbreakable dedication to keeping one another alive.
Founded in 2008 by Jonathan Wei, the Telling Project works to deepen understanding of the military and veterans’ experiences, through direct person to person contact. Interviews are then distilled into performances that put veterans and military family members in front of their communities to share their stories. As part of a collaboration between VHP and the Telling Project in 2013, Marine Corps Corporal Theodore James John relates his experiences serving with a Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron during the Persian Gulf War. Stationed in Saudi Arabia, about 40 miles from the front, he dealt with a grueling existence that included mortuary duty, Scud missile attacks, unceasing sandstorms and flies, and heat that made the sun feel “like a blowtorch.” His adjustment to a civilian existence back in the States didn’t come easy, and he has struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. View the “Telling: Veterans History Project” performance, featuring John and the veterans interviewed by the Telling Project.
Specialist Kara Ann Kittrell enlisted in the Army two months and 17 days after the September 11 attacks, with the sole purpose of deploying. Here, she speaks with Jeanne Gartside, an interviewer with the Missouri chapter of Disabled American Veterans (DAV). Gartside has contributed nearly 50 interviews to VHP, and as the wife of a veteran, knows well the sacrifices of military members and their families. As Kitrell explains, she didn’t want to be a bystander to the U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. Deploying to Iraq, she served with the 1138th Engineer Battalion. As part of an armed escort team, she traveled around much of the country, and her time there inspired a love for the Middle East. Her deployment affected body as well as mind; she earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained during an encounter with a roadside bomb, an incident that also severely wounded her best friend.
VHP promotes participation by high school students in grades ten and above, as intergenerational understanding was a desired benefit outlined in the enabling legislation. Participants have long reported that connecting with a different generation can benefit both interviewer and veteran. Similarly, family members are encouraged to act as interviewers; often oral history interviews can bring out stories that have never been heard before. This interview, conducted by Steven Lehmann in 2004, when he was a student at Medina Senior High School, represents both of these types of interviews: Steven interviewed his mother, Nancy Lehmann, who served as an Army Specialist Four in the Persian Gulf War. She made the decision to enlist seeking challenge, and found it in basic training—but the greatest hardship came when she deployed to Saudi Arabia, and said goodbye to her husband and two young sons (then ages two and three). Deployment brought additional challenges, such as constant alarms warning of incoming Scud missile attacks and the threat of chemical warfare. Working as a practical nurse on the orthopedic and surgical wards meant staying very clean every day, which could be particularly challenging given their rudimentary living and laundry facilities.
Created by Congressional legislation—Public Law 106-380, passed unanimously in October 2000—VHP has long relied on the offices of members of Congress to spread the word about the Project and to facilitate as well as conduct interviews. In this interview, Louie Blaze, working with the office of Representative Bradley Byrne (R-AL 1st District), captured the story of Sergeant Richard Moon, a veteran of WWII and Korea. Born in the Midwest, he talked his way into the Army at the age of 15, so that he could go overseas in order to rescue his older brother, who had been captured by the Germans in Italy. He had to grow up fast in order to fit in—he took up smoking and drinking so that he might seem older—and his experiences in combat aged him even further. Enlisting in the Army Reserves following the war, he was called up for Korea, where he served in a company with a 40% casualty rate. Though he was used to Midwestern weather, Wisconsin felt “like Hawaii” compared to the bitter cold of a Korean winter.
Part of VHP’s purpose is to capture stories of service from veterans of all branches, ranks, and walks of life. American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER), a nonprofit organization dedicated to equality for LGBT service members and veterans, helps to fulfill this goal. Steve Estes has been an active interviewer since the early days of VHP, and has interviewed nearly 50 veterans, among them Master Chief Petty Officer Vincent Patton III. Inspired by his older brother, he attempted to enlist in the Navy—only to mistakenly walk into the Coast Guard recruiting office. Deciding to stick with it, he found that life in the Coast Guard agreed with him, despite the racist treatment he received aboard ship. Coming up in the ranks, he was chosen as a senior enlisted advisor on a joint task force conducting humanitarian operations in Haiti —the first person from the Coast Guard to ever serve in such a capacity. From 1998 to 2002, he served as Master Chief of the Coast Guard, and focused his tenure on developing a branch-wide culture of diversity and support for cultural differences, including sexual orientation.
Colleges and universities are stalwart VHP participants, often weaving together coursework, volunteer service projects, and interviews of the student veteran population. Eileen Hurst, director of the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), is the driving force behind one such university program. Under her direction, CCSU has contributed nearly five hundred collections to the Veterans History Project, one hundred of which she personally conducted, including an interview with Vietnam veteran David Tazzara. Hailing from Winsted, a small town in northwest Connecticut, Tazzara volunteered to be drafted into the Army in 1968, so that he could go to Vietnam along with two high school friends (Joe Godenzi and Paul Vaccari). They served together through their arrival in country, when they were split up, and Tazzara was sent to LZ Bronco near Duc Pho. He spent the next seventh months as an infantryman with a reconnaissance platoon, conducting observations of enemy troop movements and night ambushes. His letters home, along with photographs taken in country, complement his oral history interview, providing additional glimpses into his combat experiences.