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What is a Veteran?

The following is a guest blog post by Kerry Ward, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).

As this Veterans Day approaches, I find myself really pondering the word “veteran,” and all it encompasses.

If you ask most people to describe what they visualize as “veteran” comes up, chances are many will envision a white-haired, Caucasian male from World War II.  As World War II veterans represent more than half of VHP’s collections, I suppose this visualization has some merit to it, but OLD certainly does not exemplify the word “veteran” for me.

As I sift through the more than 100,000 stories we have archived thus far, I see much more than just the stereotype.  I am privileged to hear and read intimate, personal accounts of love for family and country, sacrifice and resilience from 1914 to the present.

Love for Family and Country – Antonio Mario Taguba was born in the Philippines to a strong mother and a brave father, Tomas Taguba, who served as a Filipino scout under the U.S. flag. Having survived the Bataan Death March that followed the Japanese invasion, the elder Taguba moved his family to Hawaii when Antonio was just 11 years old. Not being native Hawaiians, the family quickly learned the importance of relying on each other. Junior ROTC, coupled with his father’s role in the armed forces compelled a young Taguba to pursue a career in the military.  During his VHP interview, Taguba states that the U.S. Army offered him the ability to serve, and offered his family a cultural experience unlike those that others would receive. A proud family man, Taguba speaks highly of his lovely wife, his daughter, who married the man of her dreams and his son, who appears to be trailing his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as he serves as a captain in the U.S. Army.

Antonio Taguba in uniform. Antonio Mario Taguba Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/91461.

The second American citizen of Philippine birth to be promoted to general officer rank in the Army, Antonio Taguba was in charge of investigating the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

As the son of a World War II POW, his report ultimately recommended additional training of interrogators and the dissemination of information regarding the treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Convention.  In a 2009 speech at the Library of Congress, Taguba shared this inspirational thought:

Isn’t it wonderful to be an American? Common values: duty, honor, economy, service, love of family and country and above all – responsibility for oneself. Our nation must always remember this history, it must not repeat itself.  Our unsung heroes seated here today have many untold stories yet to be shared. IT is their time and will always be their time.

Taguba’s story is especially salient as October is Filipino American History Month.  It is also the month that Taguba and many others had worked so hard to achieve. On October 25, 2017, Taguba’s father and all Filipino veterans of World War II will receive the congressional gold medal. The medal collectively honors the more than 260,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans who lent their efforts on behalf of the United States during World War II. Fewer than 16,000 of those soldiers are alive today.  While this recognition is long-overdue, IT is finally their time.

Sacrifice – The armed services is a life of discipline and routine…until it isn’t. It is not uncommon for individuals to be called upon to make the selfless decisions—sometimes the ultimate sacrifice—in defense of their country and freedoms we hold dear.  Several of the veterans featured in the collections speak fondly of their fallen brothers and sisters in the field.  Joseph William Burk was a Navy PT boat captain in World War II who lost his biological brother, Captain James “Jim” Burk, assigned to the same job in the service. While Corpsman John Frkovich was treating Jim’s wounds as the ship was sinking, the dying man put self-preservation aside and yielded to martyrdom.  Recognizing that Frkovich’s efforts were futile, James Burk gave Frkovich his life jacket so that Frkovich could survive.

Portrait of Joe Burk. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1940. //www.loc.gov/item/2004662649/.

Years later, the Frkovich family tracked down Joseph to share their thanks for his service, and for his brother’s gallant sacrifice. It was then that they learned Joseph had been a champion oarsman before joining the Navy, and had sank 26 Japanese supply barges while serving, earning him the Navy Cross, Medal of Honor, Silver and Bronze Star. He was not only a hero, but a celebrity!

Resilience – Rhonda Scott Cornum surprised herself and everyone she knew when she enlisted in the Army and served as a medical officer in an attack helicopter battalion during the Persian Gulf War.   On one rescue mission, Cornum’s Apache helicopter was shot down. An injured Cornum was taken as a prisoner of war (POW), becoming the second captured woman in the Gulf. To distract herself from the pain, occupy her mind and ultimately alert others that she was there, Cornum frequently sang and even tried to learn the native tongue in case she would need to use it.  Cornum said she doesn’t foster hostility towards those who shot her down, stating, “We would’ve done the same thing,” and:

I would have been afraid, except that I was so grateful to be alive.

Screenshot from video. Rhonda Scott Cornum Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/19247.

Cornum spent seven days being held captive by the Iraqis.  She continued her service with the Army, crediting her experience for making her a better commander, as risk assessment took on a whole new meaning.  In her oral history interview, she said emphasizes the importance of survival escape resistance and evasion (SERE) training, so that her team will not be put in the same situation she faced.

These intimate snapshots of personal accounts demonstrate how much the stories in the VHP archive vary. They tell tales of patriotic courage – yes, but really so much more.  Throughout the Veterans History Project collections, there are thousands of accounts of anything from Kenneth T. Martin, the chaplain’s assistant who “came out” as gay to his wife after losing his lover to war; to Monica Conter Benning, who describes the love that sparked between a World War II Army nurse and a fighter pilot during their time in Pearl Harbor; and artists like Robert K. Bindig, who share their personal accounts through sketches.  I see people of all ages and backgrounds who signed a blank check for our freedom.  For them, every day is Veterans Day because every day, they carry their service in their heart and in their mind.

As the annual day approaches, I implore you to also treat every day like Veterans Day.  As our first President, General George Washington said:

The Willingness with which our young people will fight in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.

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