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VHP’s Newest Online Exhibit: Breaking Ground and Boundaries: Veteran Changemakers

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Earlier this week, the Veterans History Project (VHP) launched a new online exhibit to highlight the stories of veteran “changemakers.”

A woman in a Navy cap with the words "USS Opportune" written on it stands in front of a ship.
Screenshot from the Veterans History Project homepage, featuring a photo from the Darlene Iskra Collection.

You might be asking yourself, who or what is a changemaker, exactly, and why are we focusing on them?

In early 2019, the Library of Congress launched a year-long initiative to explore the stories of individuals who were driven to transform their own world, as well of that of future generations, making them the catalysts for undeniable and historic changes. They range from 19th and 20th century advocates for women’s suffrage to politically minded illustrators and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Often sacrificing their own safety and well-being, these Americans fought back against social expectations and accepted norms in pursuit of a more equitable society.

We here at the Veterans History Project couldn’t resist the opportunity to highlight the changemakers within our archive—particularly since, arguably, all veterans have earned this particular moniker. By serving in the military, every veteran whose story is preserved within VHP’s archive participated in something larger than himself or herself. Regardless of the details of their particular service experiences, these veterans put the interests of their unit and country above their own, sometimes sacrificing their lives for the vision of a better future—and their collective efforts helped to change the world.

In honor of veteran changemakers, in this new online exhibit, we’ve marshaled the stories of 12 veterans who broke ground and boundaries, either during their service or after they had returned to civilian life.

Screenshot of woman in sitting on a green couch, wearing a black t-shirt with a white insignia, and wire rimmed glasses.
Screenshot from video interview. Lauren Campbell, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/84473.

Many of these veterans were “firsts.” Take, for example, Lauren Arnett Campbell, the first woman to serve as an aerial gunner in the Air Force Reserves, or Darlene Iskra, the first woman in the Navy to take command of a ship. Others served in pioneering units: Evelyn Johnson was part of the only female African-American unit to serve overseas in World War II. Maria Villescas drove a 16-wheeler truck in combat operations during the Persian Gulf War, at a time when women were banned from serving in combat (for an in-depth look at Villescas’ service experience, see Sam Meier’s 2018 blog post).

Screenshot of man in white button-up shirt sitting in front of a black background.
Screenshot from video interview. Melvin Pender Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/84473.

Some of these changemakers distinguished themselves in struggles against injustice that took place off the battlefield. Pompey Hawkins challenged racism and segregation within the military during World War II. After being fired from his government job due to his sexual orientation, Franklin Kameny dedicated his post-service life to advocating for the rights of the gay community. In his oral history interview, Melvin T. Pender, Jr., a two-time Olympic athlete, eloquently describes the racial discrimination he faced upon his return home to Atlanta, Georgia, after his service in Vietnam—and how he stood up to those who told him to take a seat in the back of the room.

These are but a tiny fraction of the vast array of changemakers whose collections are included in the VHP archive–and after you’ve explored the new exhibit, please take a minute to go back through our previous Experiencing War features. Many of them, such as The WASP: First in Flight or Asian Pacific Americans: Going for Broke, focus on the riveting accounts of veterans who changed the course of society and the military.

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