Although we often don’t like to admit it, much in life comes down to chance, luck and serendipitous encounters. In April 2014, I attended a panel presentation at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, on the area’s military history. One of the presenters was Enid Baxter Ryce, an artist, filmmaker and professor at nearby California State University-Monterey Bay (CSU-MB). In her talk, she described her efforts, along with her students, to document mural art located inside the buildings of a nearby military base, Fort Ord, all but abandoned when the Army decommissioned it in 1994.
I was immediately enthralled, and from that meeting began a collaboration that has spanned three years and 3,000 miles. In the intervening time, Enid and her students, working with local volunteers, have collected the stories of over 150 veterans from the Fort Ord area, including over 40 veterans who were interviewed onsite at the Monterey Stand Down for homeless veterans in August 2016.
On March 17, a delegation of nearly 60 people—including CSU-MB students and alumni, their friends and families, and university officials—visited the Library of Congress for a chance to see their work in action. At a “pop-up” display in the Whittall Pavilion at the Library, along with material from the Veterans History Project (VHP), curators from the Geography and Maps and Prints and Photographs Divisions presented items relating to Fort Ord. Following the display, student and veteran participants in the Veterans History Project spoke eloquently about the impact that conducting interviews had on their perceptions of veterans, war and their community.
In addition to visiting the place where their unedited interviews will live in perpetuity, the CSU-MB group also watched them on the big screen. Because Enid teaches in the Cinematic Arts and Technology department at CSU-MB, her students incorporated their VHP interviews into short documentary films. Enid created a feature-length experimental film on the landscape of Fort Ord. Thanks to the efforts of Peggy Parsons, head of film programs at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), these films were shown at the NGA on March 18 as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival.
The student films tackled subjects ranging from the flora and fauna of Fort Ord to the on-base antiwar activism during the Vietnam War and the experiences of a young Iraq War veteran struggling with alcoholism, while Enid’s film, A Land for War, interwove peaceful landscape scenes with archival clips from a 1969 Army training film. An estimated 450 people, including a number of Fort Ord veterans, attended the film screenings and the question-and-answer session that followed.
As Enid remarked,
The events over the last week were profoundly moving, primarily because of the words spoken by our students and the veterans with whom they collaborated. In evidence was the power of storytelling meets the power of young people creating understanding amplified by the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. The support from these beautiful institutions dedicated to art, history and learning has changed all of our lives, and our understanding of ourselves.”
The Veterans History Project extends a heartfelt thank you to the visiting students, alumni, veterans and administrative officials of CSU-MB, including Dean Ilene Feinman and President Eduardo Ochoa; Peggy Parsons and the National Gallery of Art; the Prints and Photographs Division; the Geography and Maps Division; and Enid and her husband Walter Ryce. For media coverage of the event, see this article by Walter Ryce in the Monterey County Weekly. To access VHP collections from veterans whose service locations include Fort Ord, go here.