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My First Month at VHP

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

As I wrap up my first month working for the Veterans History Project, I find myself reflecting on my first impressions.  Only a few weeks ago, I packed all of my possessions, boyfriend and bulldog into a car and moved from Orlando, FL to Washington, DC to work at the largest library in the world.  My whirlwind trip culminated with the Library of Congress’s orientation, a time of normally humdrum Human Resources (HR) rituals of expected culture and ethics.  Although I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that HR did a terrific job in covering all of their bases, it was the tour of the Library’s historic Jefferson building that really solidified where I had landed and what I was there to help do.

Exterior view. Bronze tympanum, by Olin L. Warner, representing Tradition above main entrance doors. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. by Olin L. Warner. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

I highly recommend anyone visiting the DC area plan out a few hours for a visit to the Jefferson building at the Library of Congress.  Take time to tour it, both with a docent and by yourself.  The aesthetics, history and everything in between can leave one feeling overwhelmed if not properly prepared.  That being said, my group’s docent showed us many awe-inspiring collections, but it was hard to ignore the overwhelming theme of storytelling which is visible at the very entrance; there is a tympanum depicting a woman telling stories to the child on her lap and surrounding individuals.

Excerpt from Edward J. Bayon Memoir titled “A Thrilling Adventure” Edward J. Bayon Collection. Veterans History Project., AFC/2001/001/05816.

From etchings, to writing on tablets, all the way up to the Gutenberg printing press, the stories of our history have been told and retold.  Much like the game of telephone, many of these items can be left to interpretation given a language barrier, exaggeration or simply passing on incorrect information.  For me, the beauty of the Veterans History Project is that the interviews, photographs and documents we receive are firsthand accounts of our history, unlike what would ever be taught in school.

Photo of Staff Sgt. Bayon, Army Air Corps in England, WWII Edward J. Bayon Collection. Veterans History Project., AFC/2001/001/05816.

Everyday heroes and (s)heroes recount their realities, and share them with VHP. There is WWI veteran Edward J. Bayon whose memoir tells of a thrilling adventure of a staff sergeant who married a French girl and signed on with the American Graves Registration service after the war, only to be charged with taking a barge laden with caskets of 952 American soldiers through the canals of France, Holland and Belgium, on their way back home.

No matter where your interests lie, VHP likely has collections that align with them.

Screenshot of Janis Nark speaking in 1993 on behalf of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project. President Clinton, Colin Powell in attendance. Photo from video interview. Edward J. Bayon Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/70597.

Perhaps you’d rather read of a modern day Wonder Woman like Lt. Col. Janis Nark, who, as a U.S. Army nurse serving during the Vietnam War, stood proudly in her uniform and worked tirelessly in hopeless conditions, only to be forced to grapple with her own post-traumatic stress.

Mares photo of himself in uniform, Fort Lewis, Washington, 18 years old. Jose Mares Collection. Veterans History Project. AFC/2001/001/06059.

Or maybe it is the story of resilience displayed by Jose Mares, who, despite being captured and tortured for nearly three years, gave no further information than his name, rank and date of birth that intrigues you?  Mares’ story is particularly poignant as we continue our annual observation of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) – honoring the loyalty, bravery and persistence displayed by Hispanic American veterans, often in times of adversity.

As the largest oral history collection in the world, the firsthand accounts of the Veterans History Project are able to add an emotive and human perspective to our often unknown history of what war was really like.  We urge everyone out there to not only honor the veteran in your life by recording their firsthand oral history, but also to utilize the database available at www.loc.gov/vets to keep our history alive through you.

I am excited about being able to experience this living history through the stories in our archive, and having the opportunity to share them with you. If the past month is any indicator of what’s ahead for me here at VHP, I’m confident that I made the right move!

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