The following is a blog post about Veterans History Project (VHP)’s 18th birthday.
Do you remember your 18th birthday? Birthdays, especially milestone birthdays,are often a time of celebration paired with reflection. You consider how far you have come, and yet dream of the next chapters. As the Veterans History Project (VHP) turns 18 we find ourselves doing the same thing. As we reflect on the pages of our initiative’s history, we can’t help but be excited for what the future holds.
On October 27, 2000, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted for legislation to create what was then named the Veterans Oral History Project (Public Law 106-380). Congress recognized the value of collecting the memories of our U.S. veterans as a way of honoring their service, as well as engaging the American public in its own history. Since the project started, VHP has grown to include over 108,000 collections of individual U.S. military veterans – many which have digitized content available for viewing online. The diverse collections range from World War I ambulance drivers to current conflict Gold Star families sharing the story of their loved ones, and the often overlooked sacrifices made by whole families during service.
Whereas we have many stories detailing heroic or harrowing moments, we also have narratives that speak to the quirks of stateside service– such as Walter Baxendale, a Korean War-era veteran who shared the nature of his administrative job and how he used paperclips as currency that he could trade in for cherry pie. Through oral history, we hear the remembrances, and through additional content like Kenji Ogata’s letters to his wife; Samuel Anthony Culotta’s diary mended with medical tape detailing the invasion of Saipan; Aldo Panzieri’s photos documenting his service; and Marion Gurfien’s creative correspondence with her husband during World War II and Korea, we have original, tangible items that tell stories on their own.
While we are thrilled with the success the project has demonstrated thus far, we are well aware that with 19 million veterans in our country today, our job has only just begun. This is where you come in. Since the genesis of VHP, thousands of individuals have reached out to the veterans in their lives in order to preserve their recollections. Organizations such as schools, Congressional offices, retirement homes, libraries, houses of worship, non-profits, Scout Troops, Veterans Service Organizations and more have worked tirelessly to ensure veterans nationwide will have the opportunity to share what they saw, felt and remember. Their efforts aid us in fulfilling our mission of collecting, preserving and making accessible these first-hand narratives.
Our collections are assessed for conservation needs and preserved in a controlled environment, but the collections don’t just sit on the stacks of the Library of Congress! Researchers, authors, documentarians, and schools use our collections every day. Displays take place around the Library and outside of it: check out Lisa Taylor’s blog post entitled “Familiar Faces on Display in Atlanta”, for an example of an unconventional use of VHP collections in exhibition. Collections are also used in virtual content, such as the “VA Veteran of the Day” spotlight on social media. Our collections even go on to inspire new creations by artists like actor Doug Taurel, who developed an original one-man show based on Irving Greenwald’s World War I diary.
VHP collections serve as a resource not only to the general public, but also to subsequent generations within families. Sometimes, the existence of a VHP interview is not uncovered by family members until the veteran’s passing, perhaps at the time of a funeral service. To be able to hear the voice of a recently departed loved one, telling stories that have never been heard before, is a true gift to a veteran’s family.
Occasionally, these stories offer the ability to shine a spotlight on some neglected honor. In his VHP oral history, conducted by interviewer William Vollano, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles shared his accounts of his heroic acts as a UH-1D “Huey” helicopter pilot. In a 1967 incident near Du Pho, Republic of Vietnam, he braved enemy fire to help rescue 44 of his fellow troops. Stunned by Kettles’ stories, Vollano sought interviews from fellow veterans from the 176th Aviation Company, and then reached out to his local representatives from Michigan, who pushed his story towards the Secretary of Defense and finally Congressional action. In 2016, nearly 50 years after the fact, Lieutenant Colonel Kettles was awarded the highest award bestowed upon U.S. Troops – the Medal of Honor.
While this story is a rare example, it does showcase the power of sharing and archiving these stories. Decades, even hundreds of years from now, people won’t have to wonder about what happened during the wars and conflicts represented by the veterans within our collection. They will be able to hear it directly from those who had a front row seat—the brave men and women who served.
With Veterans Day right around the corner, we can’t help but wonder what stories will come our way and how they will ultimately educate and inspire a nation.
In honor of Veterans Day, the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, Veterans History Project, and Exhibits Office present a symposium on the veterans’ “road back,” focusing on the use of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as a means of coping with service experience. We invite you to check out The Road Back: Veterans and Literary Writing [Symposium]. We hope to see you there!