The Veterans History Project was created by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000. Housed in the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, the project is primarily an oral history of American war veterans.
The personal accounts of the veterans are collected through interviews, preserved by the Library of Congress and made accessible to researchers and the pubic so "future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war." The project includes first hand accounts of American veterans from World War I (it was called the war to end all wars) to the current Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts (evidently we don't call them wars anymore).
I have assigned my students in English class to locate a war veteran and interview him or her for the project. Since these are college freshmen and not journalism majors, I decided to model how the interview should flow. My sweetie is a Vietnam vet and he agreed to be interviewed by me (with the entire class sitting back as witnesses in the darkened background).
He came dressed in his boots, jeans, cowboy shirt and hat, with his silver streaked hair covering his shirt collar. He looked exactly like a semi-retired man from small town Navasota, which is who he is.
We set up the iPad so that it recorded his face and voice as he answered my questions. He told how he joined the Navy to avoid being drafted by the Marines. One of his friends had come back in a body bag after being drafted by the Marines so Ronnie decided he was better off on a aircraft carrier n he Tonkin Gulf than in-country. However, to his surprise, he was sent to a land-based squadron in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he served between 1969 and 1970. His squadron transported cargo and personnel between Da Nang and the carriers. In between that, he maintained the aircraft, working on the aircraft skins, frames, pneumatics, hydraulics, and landing gear.
He remembered and told us about the air base being subjected to nightly sniper, rocket, and mortar attacks. "You could set your watch by the attacks; they started at 1 a.m."
He escaped being killed and doesn't believe he ever came close... well, there was the time that he was with a friend and the buddy was hit with shrapnel that tore into his chin and neck. The buddy was walking just ahead of Ronnie so there's no doubt the shrapnel would have hit him had he been walking alone. But for the most part, the nightly attacks that intruded in his dreams are probably part of the reason he suffers from PTSD and has trouble sleeping.
He got daily doses of Agent Orange from the vehicles covered with thick dusting of the leaf defoliate that the Seabees brought back to camp from their work in the bush. The wind brought more to camp when the military dumped it over Freedom Hill behind the camp. Ronnie told us there of the times he and his buddies drank beer and watched the attacks on Freedom Hill. "It was like fireworks on the Fourth of July." He didn't realize the contaminated air he was breathing would result in high blood pressure, two heart attacks, and Diabetes II.
Ronnie returned stateside in 1970, and the war protesters were still quite vocal. The protesters targeted returning vets like Ronnie and accosted them in airports calling them baby killers. Some were even spat upon. He says he never killed anyone, man or woman, infant of elder, in Vietnam. But he knows where the name baby killer comes from. He described for us how the Viet Cong would place grenades under the arms of children and send them running from a hut to the American soldiers entering village. When the children raised their arms to be lifted up, the grenades fell to the ground and exploded, killing or maiming everyone in the vicinity.
He told us that he drank a lot and ran with a wild crowd when he returned. Finally, he said that he got his act together and enrolled in college on the GI Bill, majoring in law enforcement.
When he finished his story, the students, without prompting and to my surprise and his, stood from their chairs and applauded him. Many of them had no idea what Agent Orange was, or that people spat on veterans when they returned from war. They thanked him for telling his story, and they thanked him for his service.
If you would like to listen to some of the veterans' stories from 1914 to the present, go to the website: www.loc.gov.vets If you'd like to participate, there is a guidebook to lead you through the process.