The following is a guest post by Barbara Hatch, Veterans Heritage Project Founder and Program Director. The program is based in Arizona. To learn more about this organization, read our 2016 post about it here.
In 1998, students in my history classroom had seen the movie Saving Private Ryan and wanted to separate fact from fiction. I wrote a letter to a Phoenix VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) to locate a possible Normandy veteran who could speak directly to the students. Publication of the letter led to nightly phone calls from veterans eager to share their military experiences, which led to many classroom visits and veteran connections. When Salt River Project, an Arizona utility, offered a grant in 2004 to “document local history,” our program concept was born.
We began as an after-school club with a dozen kids eager to interview veterans and publish their stories in an annual publication entitled Since You Asked. We learned that the Library of Congress had created the Veterans History Project in 2000 so the recorded interviews of our veterans would be preserved and cherished for generations. In 2009, parents whose sons and daughters had been in the program felt Connecting Students with Veterans was important for students in other schools as well, resulting in the establishment of Veterans Heritage Project (VHP) as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Today, VHP is in nearly 30 schools in Arizona.
We just completed Volume XIV of Since You Asked: A Salute to World War II, which contains the stories of 331 veterans interviewed this school year. In the past 14 years, 1,779 students have documented the stories of 1,824 veterans, making Veterans Heritage Project among the largest contributors to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. We are proud of that! Though we cannot archive all of our interviews, the veterans’ stories will live on in their families, local libraries and our books.
On March 23, 2018, our Executive Director Michelle DiMuro and I were honored to receive the Community Service Hero Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The national award recognized a community-based organization for its exceptional impact in supporting our nation’s military service members and families. Even more special, Congressional Medal of Honor recipients selected VHP for the award and presented it to us personally. Besides sharing lunches, dinners and the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery with our Medal of Honor veterans, we received a certificate and medal from the Society that proudly greets visitors to our new office. We shared the celebration with two young men who each received the Singular Hero Act award. One of the men saved lives in the Las Vegas shooting and another saved parishioners at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in La Vergne, Tennessee; a 13-year-old boy who rescued 17 people during Hurricane Harvey was awarded the Young Hero Award; and a Georgia woman was given the Ongoing Service Act for working with veteran service organizations. We came back to Arizona with a renewed mission to interview more veterans by adding more chapter schools to the program, even beyond Arizona.
On Sunday, April 8, 2018, we hosted our annual reception and book signing for over 1,000 members of our VHP community at DoubleTree Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is the first of six receptions to be held around Arizona as the remaining five regional editions of Since You Asked are released. Students had the chance to see their veterans again and have their books signed. Louis A. Conter, LCDR, USN (Ret.), our keynote speaker and one of the last four survivors of the USS Arizona bombing on December 7, 1941, spoke to the guests. Fifty World War II veterans processed into the venue to open the program. Family members carried photos for those who had passed away. Three World War II veterans—Bud Fischer, Army Air Corps pilot, Europe; John Eloff, Pacific Marine on Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima; and Ennis Miller, Army MP who attended the Nuremberg Trials in 1945—along with three students, told the audience their favorite VHP memory as well as what the interview meant to them personally. Students represented an alumnus who is now a pediatric anesthesiologist, a current high school junior and a two-year VHP student still in middle school. We also have chapters at our community colleges.
As we savor the memories of the stories we captured and the reconnections we made earlier this month, students are eager to begin Volume XV of Since You Asked: A Salute to the Korean War. Interviews will begin soon, even before these young people head off to summer vacation. They want to archive the stories of these singular veterans in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project collection while there is still time. Perhaps they will even be able to hand deliver them in Washington, D.C., as they did last summer.