Northern Kentucky University graduate student Drew Perkins watched helplessly as his interview subject, a Vietnam Veteran, broke down in front of the camera. The vet, momentarily unable to continue with the interview, was digging deeply into his past, recounting the decades-old stories and harrowing accounts of war.
The veteran’s stories hail from a particular part of history that seethes with controversy, confusion and suffering. For Perkins, who did a four-year stint with the army’s 82nd
Airborne in Fort Bragg, watching the veteran break down emotionally was heartbreaking. Yet just by conducting the interview, Perkins is a part of history in the making.
Signed into law on October 27, 2000, the U. S. Congress voted unanimously on legislation that created The Veterans History Project (VHP). Its goal, according to their official field kit, is to “collect and preserve stories of service, honor those who served and make it possible to learn about the past through first-hand accounts of men and women who lived through extraordinary times.”
Over the course of the semester, numerous NKU graduate and undergraduate students and community members have dedicated themselves to the national project.
“‘Veterans History Project’ is a misnomer in my opinion,” said Dr. Jonathan Reynolds, associate professor of history at NKU and the project’s senior advisor. “The project is about Americans who have experienced war in the 20th century, spouses of vets, people who were involved in wartime industry or people who became American citizens during wartime.”
Funded by the U.S. Congress, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, the VHP relies solely on volunteers from around the country to interview and record the veterans’ testimony, and to compile and donate materials.
The basis for an NKU class titled Directed Research in History, the VHP is “not just about collecting interviews. It’s really about how learning to undertake a project of this magnitude,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds credits a dedicated and ambitious NKU history major named Liz Comer for making the VHP part of the university curriculum.
In August 2004, after coming across a short article in her hometown newspaper, Comer introduced the concept to Reynolds, along with the university’s history honors society, Phi Alpha Theta. After working out the details, Reynolds applied for and received official university approval to conduct the class.
“I like to think of myself as the figurehead who gives it academic legitimacy,” Reynolds said. “It’s very much a student run project.”
According to the Library of Congress Web site, the project “collects and preserves the extraordinary wartime stories of ordinary people.” Focusing on major wars from WWI through today’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the project states that the personal accounts “… are not a formal history of war, but a treasure trove of individual feeling and personal recollections,” and adds “Through stories, we can form a personal connection with the storyteller and begin to truly know and understand the human experience.”
There’s the story of a wartime medical doctor who treated front-line soldiers wounded on the famous D-day invasion of WWII. It’s a story that Beth Richter, VHP participant and senior history major at NKU, remembers hearing well. “The doctor had all kinds of pictures, and he wrote about everything that he saw,” she said. “He got so see so much and went through so much setting up makeshift hospitals behind the front lines and treating wounded soldiers, yet he didn’t think anything he said was interesting. I couldn’t understand it.”
Liz Comer recalled the bravery of one of her interview subjects, another WWII veteran. “This guy was wounded at a battle in Okinawa; he was injured so severely that he could barely move. After waiting for hours, being able to hear enemy soldiers around him, he had to roll down a ridge,” Comer said. “He was eventually rescued by troops and placed on a medical ship, where he thought he was going to be discharged. But as soon as they found out he was basically healed, they ended up sending him back.”
Comer said the interview helped her realize the importance of the project. “Hearing him talk about lying on the ground for that long – and all this time they were shooting at his feet – it really brings [the experience] to life,” Comer said. “You read the books and see the movies but seeing someone who was actually there is really powerful.”
Richter agrees. “You have so many veterans that are passing away and their stories are disappearing with them. With the project, at least their stories are archived and won’t be forgotten,” she said.
Although Reynolds hopes to offer the class again next spring, participation is ongoing. According to its Library of Congress Web site, the Veterans History Project “relies on volunteers to interview, record, compile and donate materials. All are encouraged to participate: veterans, civilians, adults, young people, men, women, scholars, students, amateurs and experts. In turn, participants can rely on the Library of Congress to preserve, catalog and share these collections now and in the future.”
Perkins believes the project offers a unique opportunity for students. “This class is more than just students meeting for three hours a week,” Perkins said. “This project really transcends a lot of issues – we need more people to realize the profundity of the concept of this class.”