When The Spokesman-Review began its “Voices of War” series last fall, editors and reporters expected to be able to find enough compelling stories to publish one a month for a year. ■ We were wrong. As it turned out, we could have published one a week and still not exhausted the stories of veterans around the Inland Northwest. Each new story brought suggestions of other men and women we should consider featuring. ■ Limitations of staff time and newspaper space meant that we had to stick to the original plan of 12 stories representing a range of viewpoints and experiences. ■ While this is the end of the newspaper’s series, we hope it is the beginning to a new phase of gathering veterans’ stories.
The job now shifts to our readers – the sons and daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, of those veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, of the Persian Gulf and Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each veteran’s account is a small part of a community’s shared story, but it is a large part of a family’s story. Preserving the story for the family is a way of preserving it for the community and the nation.
With an estimated 1,000 World War II veterans dying each day, the need to preserve stories from that conflict is especially urgent. But don’t forget that the Korean War quickly followed, and the veterans of that war are nearly as old. Most Vietnam veterans qualify for membership in AARP; many are already drawing Social Security. Those stories, too, will soon fade away.
For those interested in preserving the stories of veterans in their family, here are some tips reporters used when interviewing subjects for Voices of War:
•Set aside enough time, and talk in a place where there will be few or no distractions.
•Remember that many veterans returned home and for decades talked about the war only with other veterans, because they felt that people who weren’t there couldn’t understand some of the things they had seen or done. As time passes, it’s easier for some veterans to tell their stories. Many say they didn’t tell their children about their experiences and didn’t really talk about them until their grandchildren asked.
•Start slow, with where they were when the war started, and lead up to traumatic events like a major battle. Talk about what they did when the war ended, too.
•Don’t talk just about the horrors of war. Strange things, surprising things and even funny things happened to many soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. They make some of the best stories for the family to keep.
•Remember that many things were different during the war, not just in the military but in everyday life. They’re part of the story, too.
For more help, check out the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, which is collecting stories from the battlefields and the home front of World War II. The project can be found at www.pbs.org/thewar/, the home page for Ken Burns’ PBS series on World War II. There’s a link to the history project near the top of the page.
Another Web site, Footnote.com, has released a series of World War II photos and documents as part of an effort to preserve stories of veterans. While some aspects of the site can be reached only through a subscription, many parts of it are free.
But remember that you don’t need the Internet to record the experiences of a relative who served in one of the nation’s wars. A tape recorder or video camera is a plus, but all you really need is a pen and paper. That, and the ability to listen.