As competitors were hurrying from one competition to the next at the 28th National Disabled Veterans Wheelchair Games, some paused between venues to commit to history their accounts of their military service and the impact it’s had on their lives.
Tucked quietly away from the brightly lit competitions, Steve Hollingshead from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Media Services Division was busy building the Veterans History Project.
The program, established by Congress in 2000, is designed to preserve the legacies of America’s aging veterans who are dying at the rate of about 1,500 a day.
“Getting these oral histories now is important, because once they are gone, their stories are gone forever,” Hollingshead said.
Interviews taped through the program go on file at the Library of Congress, where they are available for researchers, and the veteran gets a personal DVD copy, Hollingshead explained. He noted that the DVD will be an important memory for their families after the veterans have died.
But while the program initially focused on older veterans, Hollingshead said, he’s increasingly seeing veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan participating in the project. Several gave their oral histories during the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo., in early April.
Hollingshead and his team take their video cameras whenever the VA participates in a big event like the Wheelchair Games, encouraging veterans to share their stories. “This is first-generation knowledge, stories from the heroes who performed these missions, told in their purest form,” he said.
During each interview session, Hollingshead spends about 30 minutes asking each veteran to talk about why they joined the military, what experiences stand out in their minds and how those experiences have affected their post-military lives.
“I love getting these guys. They have such great stories, and none of them are boring,” he said. “You get so much out of these interviews. You hear them talk and read their body language and get their emotion. It’s pretty powerful.”
For many of the veterans, giving an oral history proves to be therapeutic, he said. “I’ve had guys get tears in their eyes and tell me that this is the first time they’ve shared their stories,” he said. “I had one Vietnam veteran tell me, ‘I feel so much better.’”
The younger veterans’ stories are different from those of earlier generations, Hollingshead said. They served in different wars, carrying out different missions and applying different kinds of warfare. Their wounds are different, with traumatic brain injuries and amputations more prevalent than in the past. Many long to go back to the conflict to rejoin their buddies who are still fighting.
But despite these differences, Hollingshead said, he sees a common thread among the veterans he interviews. Whether they served in World War I or Operation Iraqi Freedom, or in some conflict in between, all recognize that “they were there, fighting for their country,” he said.
“All of them love their country and are here for all the right reasons,” Hollingshead said. “The patriotism you see in these people is just phenomenal.”
All Americans, including students and grandchildren, can participate in documenting the lives of the nation’s war veterans, Hollingshead said.