Members Boost History Project

Effort to Capture Veterans’ Stories Averaging 200 Submissions a Week

Posted September 26, 2003 at 1:40pm

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has recently joined a team of colleagues in bolstering Congressional support of the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project by printing editorials and hosting events in his state. The project, which focuses on oral histories usually captured on audio or videotape, is now averaging 200 submissions every week.

So far, 117 House offices and 38 Senate offices have come together to support the Veterans History Project to record the oral histories of many of the 19 million war veterans who currently reside in the United States.

According to the Veterans Affairs Department, the United States is losing 1,500 veterans each day. The project has more than 800 partners nationwide attempting to capture their voices on audio and videotape.

Among those joining the effort is Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). His state has submitted more than 2,300 items to the national collection since the Senator joined the project in 2002, said Lugar’s Indiana spokesman, Nick Weber.

“Indiana has more than half a million veterans, and there did not seem to be any organization or person in the state taking up this cause,” Weber said.

Besides tapes, the project receives photos, letters, memoirs and even original drawings from soldiers on duty. The project houses 26,000 items that represent 9,200 veterans and civilians. An item can represent a single photo or more, such as the bundle of 1,261 letters exchanged between Jerry Brenner and his wife during World War II.

Among Ney’s colleagues who are actively enlisting the help of their districts to interview war veterans are Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), as well as Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Kind, called the “father of the legislation” by VHP project coordinator Anneliesa Clump, had never heard his father’s stories from the Korean War. So when his father and uncle began swapping war stories at the picnic table one afternoon, Kind captured the moment on video.

“I wanted to record it for my own family archives,” Kind said. “But then I thought, ‘You know, families across the country should be doing this,’ and that’s the spark that gave rise to drafting the legislation.”

Although Kind, who has reinterviewed his father and uncle for the project, came up with the idea, Reps. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) co-sponsored the legislation in September 2000. It passed both houses just a month later.

The project received bipartisan support and passed into law by unanimous consent with the purpose to “collect and preserve the stories of service from war veterans … as well as those who supported the war effort,” Clump said.

The project aims to serve as a learning device for students and a way to honor veterans for their service. Members of Congress are encouraging student organizations to take part in the program.

“We take [the submissions] seriously because [the veterans] are giving us pieces of their lives,” said Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, the program director. “We have to make sure that they are there for the future to learn from.”

Congressional support did not end once legislation passed in October 2000, but expanded to the Five Star Council, a board of leaders who serve to advise the project. There are seven current Members of Congress, including Hoyer and President Pro Tem Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and four former Members on the board. Other members include former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite and Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi.

Lugar, who served in the Navy, has personally submitted four interviews, which are available at the Library of Congress. One interview with Vietnam War veteran George Haskett, who only “weighed 120 pounds soaking wet” straight out of high school, lasted 45 minutes.

Haskett fought back tears as he concluded his interview: “I wasn’t a bad kid, I was a punk ass. That war took all the punk out of me.”

The project is preparing a radio program called “Coming Home” in which veterans will tell their stories. The program will be distributed by Public Radio International. In addition, a new Web site will feature 24 more digitized stories to accompany the current Web site: www.loc.gov/folklife/vets/. Both are timed for release on Veteran’s Day.

Although the project is designated by Congress for veterans and supporters from World Wars I and II and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the project may also include the veterans of the war in Iraq.

“We would very much like to have their stories, [but] we think our first priority is come back home and become veterans,” McCulloch-Lovell said.