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Remembering veterans

With Memorial Day in the U.S. right around the corner, we’re bringing you a glimpse into a handful of oral history projects focused on collecting and preserving the memories of military veterans. Check them out, and mention your favorite projects in the comments below.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum Oral History Program

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum (WVM)’s mission is to affirm, commemorate, and acknowledge the achievements and sacrifices of Wisconsin veterans in America’s military past. The WVM Oral History Program, which I have had the privilege of coordinating for over three years, honors those who served by recording and preserving their stories and experiences. Since 1994 our staff members and volunteers have conducted and collected over 2,100 interviews with veterans from around the state. Our collection represents all branches and all conflicts and eras since World War I to the present day. The Oral History Program focuses not only on creating a record of our veteran-narrators’ stories, but also on the preservation and accessibility of these narratives for future generations. The interviews are housed in WVM’s Research Center, where they are easily available to teachers, students, researchers, the media, and veterans groups. In addition, great strides are being made to make the interviews, both the recordings and associated transcripts, more discoverable and accessible through WVM’s website. We also strive to promote these primary sources by using them for public programming, exhibits, and educational activities.

WVM recently opened a new temporary exhibit entitled “WWI Beyond the Trenches: Stories From The Front.” Throughout the next two years we will be offering programming and events that feature Wisconsin’s contribution to the Great War – in which 122,000 people from Wisconsin served. As part of these efforts, we have been working on ways to showcase our small but exciting collection of World War I oral history interviews:

  • Eleven of our World War I interviews are accessible online via our website’s Featured Interviews page. We recently started using OHMS as an access tool and this is the third collection that we’ve featured through OHMS.
  • Excerpts from several of the interviews are available to listen to in the new exhibit through an audio device that visitors can pick up before going into the gallery.
  • We have partnered with the producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life to feature stories and audio from our collections on the show. We will be these airing stories through next November.

We are always looking for new ways to use and feature all of our interviews and to inspire others to do so as well. These narratives put a human, individual face on war and military service, so that visitors and researchers get an opportunity to meet these veterans and perhaps put themselves in their shoes.

Learn more about the WVM Oral History Program, and search the Collection.

–Ellen Brooks, Oral Historian, Wisconsin Veterans Museum

U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center’s Oral History Programs

In 1970 General William Westmoreland started the Senior Officer Oral History Program (SOOHP) to provide insights into the command and management techniques utilized by senior Army officers in key positions and to further scholarly research on the history of the U.S. Army. Today that program is spearheaded by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and has since inspired the creation of three additional oral history programs, all of which capture the history of U.S. Army Soldiers in their own words.

The USAHEC is the Army’s preeminent archive, academic library, and research complex with expansive historical resources for Soldiers, researchers, and visitors. The organization, originally founded in 1969 as the U.S. Army Military History Institute (USAMHI), now includes that original organization as a subordinate division and is an important part of the U.S. Army War College (USAWC), which educates and develops leaders for service at the strategic level while advancing knowledge in the global application of Landpower. As the USAHEC aims to preserve the stories of all Soldiers, it makes sense that these oral history programs are an important focus of the institution. Once completed, all interview transcripts are placed in the archives of the USAMHI for use by USAWC students and faculty, researchers, headquarters, agencies, and the general public in accordance with interview access agreements and the USAHEC’s mission of making contemporary and historical materials available.

The purpose of the original oral history program, SOOHP, is three fold. First, to record the management and leadership techniques of senior Army officers and Department of the Army Civilians and their recollections and opinions on key persons, events, and decisions. Second, to provide a comprehensive biography of senior leaders for the historical record, or to record information about significant events, ideas, and decisions as seen from the perspectives of key participants. Lastly, to supplement written records, clarify obscure aspects of significant events and decisions, and provide material where manuscript or printed sources are inadequate or unavailable.

Learn more about the project, and how to get involved, through the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center’s website.

–LTC (R) Brent C. Bankus, Chief, Oral History Branch, U.S. Army Military History Institute

University of Oregon Veterans Oral History Project

The University of Oregon Veterans Oral History Project began about a decade ago when I realized that our university archive had virtually nothing documenting the experience of our students who had served in the military. This was at a time when the numbers of veterans at the university was increasing quite substantially. Because most of my teaching is in the field of military history, I have always had significant numbers of veterans in my classes. My thinking was quite simple: why not try to document the experiences of an important part of our student body?

I had read somewhere (probably Donald Ritchie’s handbook) that oral histories that are not transcribed almost always go unused. I knew that I could not pay for transcriptions, so I decided that I would offer a class that would serve as a platform for the project. Students would do the work of both interviewing our veterans and, equally important, transcribing those interviews. What started in my mind primarily as a documentary project thus developed both documentary and pedagogical aims. Over the last six years we have interviewed about one hundred twenty-five servicemen and women; as of this writing about fifty of those interviews are available via the university library’s website.

Probably the biggest practical difficulty I have faced with the project is the recruitment of veterans, either to participate in the class or to be interviewed. When I talk to people about interviewing, one of objections I often get is, “You don’t want to interview me; I didn’t do anything interesting.” What they usually mean by “not interesting” is “I didn’t see combat.” Even soldiers who served in combat zones but whose job was in a support capacity will sometimes tell me that.

The entire point of the project, however, is to document the full range of experience in the services. Our motto is “anytime, anyplace, anywhere, any job.” Many veterans appreciate the fact that the project offers public recognition of military service, not just the service of those who happened to serve in places of danger, but of anyone who served: any rank, anytime, anyplace. The rank, I think, is especially important. Most of those we interview were enlisted. They are used to what we might think of as generic recognition of their service – in the way that, say, we “honor” those who served and sometimes give them special benefits and recognition. What I think those who participate especially like about this project is the way it personalizes the service of those whose service might otherwise fade into anonymity.

As a result, how I view the project has changed. I originally saw it primarily as a documentary project; today I also regard it as a kind of online memorial that allows veterans to present their service as they want it presented to and recognized by the wider public.

Read more about the project, and explore the archive.

–Alex Dracobly, Senior Instructor II, Department of History, University of Oregon

Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Remember” by Ian Sane CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. stephanie boyle

    Thank you for this article and to the respective project owners for sharing their work & experiences. As an oral historian working with military veterans (in Australia) I doubly appreciate an article which focuses on veterans’ interviews.

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