The following is a guest blog post by Mitch Friesenborg, a summer intern in the office of U.S. Senator John Boozman (AR). He attends Harding University, and is a member of the Arkansas National Guard.
In the year 2021, the United States is in relative peace. No teenager today is anxious at the chance they could be drafted to fight in a war overseas. Most have college or a career on their mind. That peace of mind we enjoy today is only made possible by the men and women who gave their lives in service (some even gave their lives) to our country’s values and freedoms—from the shores of France, the hills of North Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, to the sands of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP) understands their sacrifice, and has made it their mission to memorialize these brave heroes for future generations to look upon.
Colonel (retired) Anita Deason, the senator’s military and veteran liaison, presented a lot of expectations of me up front. An internship with Senator John Boozman’s office is a difficult one to attain, one I count myself lucky for, and would challenge me over the next month. It was also a great opportunity for me as someone in the Arkansas National Guard. One of the projects closest to Anita’s heart that she presented to me was VHP.
This piqued my interest. Driving around the state and hearing veterans’ service stories instead of sitting at a desk all the time sounded like fun, although there was plenty of office work too. Once the VHP interviews began, I became truly invested in the incredible life stories of these men and women.
Growing up in Iowa, I knew next to nothing about Arkansas and its people. Attending Harding University in the fall of 2019 was my first experience living in the South, and it was like a cold shower. I had to learn to adjust to many things, from the weather and the humidity to Arkansans’ obsession with sweet tea. There are many good qualities I learned here, one of them was the true meaning of “southern hospitality.” Never have I met more passionate, kind and hospitable people across the nation than in the state of Arkansas. Veterans, in particular here, are brimming with it.
The first VHP interview I attended was with Clyde Cook. With Anita asking the questions, I listened for over an hour as Clyde detailed his life story. Growing up in Little Rock, AR, Clyde was inspired by his father, a World War II veteran, to become a Marine. He served in Vietnam through the 1960s, and told us extensively how poor his M16 rifle was. However, his return home was just as riveting, as he talked about how he and his fellow Marines were scorned for taking part in the war as they tried to reintegrate into civilian life. A girl he wanted to date in college called him a “baby killer” when she found out he served in Vietnam. The horrors Clyde saw overseas, as well as the unjust treatment he received back home is a small but important part of the larger, ugly picture that was the Vietnam War.
My second and third interviews took place in Mountain Home, Arkansas. After getting past the nightmare roads of the Ozarks on a three-hour drive, Anita and I finally made it to the county library. The first woman I interviewed was an Iraq War Air Force veteran named Elesha Granniss. Currently serving as the county service officer for the Arkansas Department of Veteran Affairs, Elesha told me her story, from her wild enlistment to her tour of Iraq, as well as funny stories of her kids. She reminded me a lot of my mom, so it was very easy to speak with her.
Jami Huisjen Scott, on the other hand, did not have a pleasant experience in the Air Force. In my next interview, Jami talked about the difficulty of working in the male-dominated environment of the Air Force in the 80s and 90s. She shared her story of how rampant sexual harassment and abuse was back then, and hoped to spread awareness of those women who experienced abuse during that time. It was amazing listening to the story of a woman who came from a broken family and experienced such hardships—from being forced to attend a cult-like religious school in her teens, to her terrible commanders in the Air Force who made her life miserable. Yet she pushed beyond and became a chaplain after her military service. I was honored to record her story.
There were a few veterans that I didn’t interview but was blessed to meet. One of them was Colonel Nathaniel Todd. As the Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Veteran Affairs, he works closely with Anita, and he is one of the kindest, most outgoing people I have ever met. Every time I saw him, his face would light up and he’d clap me on the back. You could always notice him in any room due to his height and his booming laugh. He told me a story about a time when he was a private and he and his buddies were picking up trash after a parade, and missed some pieces. Colonel Todd urged them to come with him to look for more trash, all while a Sergeant Major watched from afar. This act helped kick start and mold his career in the military. His leadership and attitude to do the right thing when no one is watching helped him on his journey to becoming a colonel in the Army. He is someone that I and my fellow soldiers in the Army should model after.
Speaking of leaders, Anita also introduced me to Steven Veazey, the Command Sergeant Major of the Arkansas National Guard at Camp Robinson. Walking into Camp Robinson headquarters for the first time, I was very anxious. The colonels walking past me were my commanders in the Guard, and here I was, just a lowly Specialist, I had thought. However, when I met CSM Veazey, that anxiety washed away.
I was almost taken aback by how easy he was to talk to. His earnest effort to get to know me and my personal experience in the Army showed me he truly cares about his soldiers. One of the things I talked with him about is juggling a civilian career as a sports journalist, which will likely take up my weekends, with the National Guard, whose drills are on weekends, when I graduate from college. His advice on the Guard’s flexibility with making up time was very insightful. CSM Veazey taking the time to talk to me about his own experience of an over 40-year career in the Guard, and the benefits that come with a military retirement has made me ponder my future in the Army.
Like Colonel Todd, CSM Veazey is an incredible man that I was blessed to meet, and I am thankful for the opportunity that I otherwise would not have had if not for this internship.
Another veteran I met through Anita’s help was former Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Fureigh, an Army pilot who served in Vietnam. During a Tuesday afternoon, I spent two hours listening to a recording of a VHP interview Anita previously conducted with Robert, who was a friend with whom she served. Over those two hours, I felt like I truly got to know him. Who knew I would get to meet him in person during a baseball game that night?
Anita introduced me to Robert during a veteran-sponsored barbeque at the baseball stadium, then sat in the same row during the game. Robert and I would continue to chat for hours, and it was like I was watching his VHP interview all over again. We talked about everything from his days in college as an ROTC cadet, to flying helicopters in Vietnam. It was such a pleasure speaking with someone so passionate about his job as a pilot.
Anita would tell me later that night that our long talk benefited him much more than it did me. It was another key moment of understanding how important the Library of Congress’ mission is with the Veteran’s History Project. I would’ve never gotten to speak with, let alone spend several hours with, Robert if I hadn’t watched his VHP interview. Connecting younger generations with veterans, and showing them their stories matter, is vital to taking care of our veterans. Such a level of understanding will also prevent a negative reception of Vietnam veterans who come home, like Robert and Clyde, from happening ever again.
My appreciation for this internship is not something that I can sum up in a few words. The wonderful places I got to go, and the people I met along the way are moments I would’ve never experienced on my own. I am so grateful to Anita Deason, as she gave me so much in such a short amount of time to make this the best internship possible. There were difficult times, but she helped push me, and I am proud of the work we did together, and proud of the work I did for VHP. I can only hope that I lived up to her expectations.
I highly recommend any college student who has the time for an internship to apply for Senator Boozman’s office. You will not find a more caring staff than here at the office, and the veterans and the stories you will listen to during this internship can change your life.