I am proud to be an American, and on this Veterans Day, I am humbly reminded of the sacrifices that my fellow countrymen and women have made to ensure that the United States of America remains “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” As the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states: “The … observance of Veterans Day [on] November 11 not only preserves the historical significance of the date [the Armistice of WWI on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month], but helps focus attention on the important purpose of Veterans Day: A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good” (for more information on the history of Veterans Day, visit http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp).
Living in southeastern North Carolina, I am surrounded by a U.S. military presence. The area is home to Camp LeJeune (Marines), Fort Bragg (Army), Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and U.S. Coast Guard stations. In the Wilmington area, a variety of landmarks also serve as visual reminders of the valor and selflessness of the nations’ veterans throughout history: Moore’s Creek National Battlefield preserves the significant Revolutionary War battle that occurred there, Fort Fisher and the Wilmington National Cemetery memorialize the Civil War engagements that dealt a critical blow to Southern supply lines, the majestic battleship U.S.S. North Carolina welcomes visitors aboard to learn about her crew’s impressive campaigns during WWII, and the frequent docking of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Diligence along the Cape Fear River represents our country’s continued protection of our coastal waters.
Yet on Veterans Day, it seems appropriate to take time to reflect on the service members themselves rather than on their general presence or the tours that the historical landmarks offer. As a personal historian, I am especially interested in individual experiences – not just what happened, but also what thoughts and emotions were intertwined with the events.
My father served in the Army National Guard for many years. I wish that he were here today so that I could ask him about his experiences at boot camp and the relief/assistance missions that he participated in here in the States. As it is, I am left with a few childhood memories of him teaching me how to march while chanting the cadence (“I don’t know but I’ve been told! … Sound off [1,2], Sound off [3,4]…”), showing me his bivouac gear and rations, and me proudly watching him as he marched with our town’s American Legion post in various parades. On a few occasions, he took me to “the Legion” – it was a treat for me because although I participated in the American Legion Little League program, I was typically only allowed on the ball fields, not inside the building itself. I loved to listen in on the adult conversations as I nibbled on french-fries and sipped a soft drink.
Today, my love of listening to, and reading about, others’ stories has not waned. I am intrigued by reading the diaries and love letters of soldiers (see http://www.teacheroz.com/WWII_Oral_History.htm for a great list) and I have been honored to help preserve the Air Force experiences of one of my clients.
If you possess a box filled with a relative’s war correspondence or journals, I encourage you to preserve them and make them accessible to other family members and the public in general. Photocopy the originals (if they are fragile or are showing signs of wear, first consult with a professional to avoid potential damage caused by the scanning process) and transcribe them into a Word document, which will make it easy to send to family members via email or to print multiple copies. Then contact your local historical society and library and offer to provide them with copies.
If you are fortunate enough to still be able to visit with a veteran, particularly one who is a family member, consider conducting a recorded oral interview (or a series of interviews). These recordings can also be transcribed into a written work, if so desired. Interviews are fun to do, and the result is priceless. The Veterans History Project is a fantastic resource to help you in this endeavor, plus it results in the preservation of your veteran’s experience within the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center (for more information, visit http://www.loc.gov/vets/).
To any veterans reading this post, I want to say “thank you.” These two words seem so small, but they contain heartfelt gratitude for your willingness to defend this amazing country and its citizens.