Though it sounds a bit illogical, I consider myself lucky to have a job in which I am moved to tears on a regular basis. Working with Veterans History Project collections–whether they are made up of oral histories, manuscripts, or photographs–and the life stories they contain can sometimes elicit a strong visceral reaction. Granted, it can occasionally get awkward during conference presentations or staff meetings, but it’s an insignificant price to pay to handle such profoundly moving materials, and collections to which I personally connect.
While my colleagues may not necessarily get as teary as I do, this sense of personal connection to our collection materials is felt by all VHP staff.
With that in mind, for our newest web feature, we decided to share collections that particularly resonated with us instead of focusing on a particular branch, theme, or conflict. These collections run the gamut of branches, conflicts, and wartime experiences; each VHP staff member connects to different collections, for different reasons–and chose collections for the feature accordingly.
For some VHP staff members, it was the veteran’s personality that struck a particular chord. VHP processing technician Candace Milburn was struck by Sergeant Major Mary Aurtrey‘s “strong will, determination, and support to soldiers and their families,” particularly during Aurtrey’s time spent managing a military residence of about 250 soldiers in Germany.
Other staff members were moved by the twists and turns of a veteran’s particular service experience. VHP Director Bob Patrick selected the story of Vietnam veteran Major James Kimsey to feature:
Kimsey went from being a recalcitrant high school student to a West Point graduate to a two-tour Vietnam War veteran to an inexperienced businessman to the first President of AOL. It is a life full of fate, unanticipated circumstances, luck and perseverance. Also, I wanted to highlight Kimsey’s service in Vietnam as being a positive influence on his future success.
VHP Liaison Specialist Lisa Taylor connected to a more painful service story, that of Sergeant Connie Rose Spinks. Wounded by an explosion while serving in Iraq in 2003, she sustained severe injuries and burns to her face. As Lisa explained,
This collection has resonated with me since my first week at VHP almost five years ago. The contrast between the before and after pictures were etched into my memory, absolutely jarring. I remember that her boyfriend was really cruel to break up with her as soon as she got injured after begging her not to break up with him when she got deployed. I was so mad at him! But I felt a sense of sweet revenge when I read that Denzel Washington handed her the Purple Heart she earned. I have always wondered how she is doing today and if she ever found a soul mate.
Instead of focusing on World War I veteran Rex Bixby‘s personal service story, VHP Archivist Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz selected the collection because of what happened to it after it arrived at the Library. Bixby’s collection consists of a scrapbook that includes news clippings, postcards, ephemera such as playing cards, buttons, and ribbons, and photographs of early Army aviation programs. After it was donated to the Veterans History Project by a relative of Bixby’s, the scrapbook was sent to the Library’s Preservation Directorate for treatment, where technicians mended broken pages, re-adhered photos with a water based adhesive, and rebound it. On selecting Bixby for the web feature, Andrew relates,
I chose the Bixby collection because it showcases the intersection of both access and preservation requirements when planning for the long-term usage of fragile material in an archival setting. Instead of being mutually exclusive, it is possible (and even desirable) to combine the two areas in a way that takes into account the safety of collection material while providing for patron access at the same time.
My own personal choices for the web feature include Martha Roed Bell, who served with the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam, and who gives a thoughtful account of the lessons she learned while serving in country. You can hear the emotion in her voice when she describes serving her military patients, including one memorable patient that she encountered only a week into her time in Vietnam. Another collection that I chose to highlight is that of Bernard Weisberger, a Second Lieutenant who served as a Japanese translator with the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service during World War II. I was riveted by Weisberger’s memoir, which conveys so many details of his wartime experiences that I felt as if I had traveled to India and China alongside this bookish young serviceman.
Don’t miss our other staff picks that are included as part of this new web feature, and be sure to browse through previous iterations of Experiencing War. Within the VHP archive, is there a collection that particular resonates with you? Tell us in the comments!