Much of history is lost to the simple passing of time. Monuments erode, pictures and news articles are lost, memories fade; what survives is usually the fantastic, or large in scale. Books record major events, like the Civil Rights movement, or devastating wars, like World War II. They talk about central personalities and battles, but few annals ever reach down into the ranks of the every day. Few histories record the personal stories of those who were living in times upheaval.
The Veterans Ambassador Program at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center wants to change that.
“If you were a Soldier in the United States Army, we want your story,” said Karl Warner, program and education coordinator at USAHEC. Warner serves as the VAP administrator, and is responsible for managing the ambassadors and making sure the program runs smoothly. He believes every Army story is important.
“If you simply went to basic training and were a finance clerk for four years and then got out, I still want your story because somebody, someday, is going to need to know what it was like to be a finance clerk in Fort Drum, New York. Somebody is going to need to know that, that is a story. What happens if somebody is writing a paper on the history of finance in the United States Army? The Army has to pay people, so we need that clerk’s story,” Warner said.
Every Soldier’s story is welcome, he emphasized, from clerks to combat. As part of USAHEC in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the program aims to further its parent organization’s goal: Tell the Army’s story, one Soldier at a time. The program officials represent USAHEC to veterans organizations and promote awareness of the Soldiers’ historical repository, distribute and collect veterans’ surveys and conduct oral histories of veterans.
The VAP came about when Warner noticed a lack of a coordinated oral history program in the Army for Soldiers and veterans. There are oral history programs for high-ranking general officers, called the Senior Officer Oral History Program, and there are programs that do oral histories with battalion and brigade command levels, especially those involved in particular operations. There are programs throughout the military services to collect oral history, and each major Army command has a designated historian who might conduct exit interviews with various leaders or decorated Soldiers.
“All that being said, that I know of, there are no organizations or programs specifically to go out and find veterans and interview veterans about their time in the Army outside the programs and projects I’ve already spoken of,” Warner explained.
USHEC has been collecting veterans’ stories for years, through service surveys that ranged between 13 and 20 pages, specific to an era of conflict. Some of their first surveys date from the Spanish-American War, Warner said. Veterans would return the surveys and representatives from USAHEC would follow up and ask if they would like to donate materials to the overall collection, such as diaries and photographs.
Recently, Warner and his colleagues noticed that the surveys weren’t coming back as frequently from the Vietnam era and forward into the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “And we found out the reason why is that nowadays, most veterans don’t really want to fill out a 20-page survey,” Warner explained. For some, they are too close to their time of service, and filling out the survey could be painful.
Warner decided to retire this old survey collection program in favor of a shorter, 8-page survey, which is a prerequisite to participate in the VAP. Once the surveys are returned, Warner connects veterans, or even active duty Soldiers, with volunteer ambassadors who conduct the oral history interviews.
Though VAP is still in its infancy, just beginning to collect surveys and conduct interviews, Warner is enthusiastic about the mission, and his enthusiasm inspires the ambassadors. Eventually, the histories in the VAP will be available to the public through the program website, but for now, the veterans’ stories are still being collected and digitally compiled.
One of the ambassadors, Nicole Witmer, is pursuing her master’s degree in history at Shippensburg University in Carlisle. Witmer had an internship at USAHEC in 2014, and was determined to work with Warner.
“I sent him my resume, and I guess it was when I was working with him on my internship that he told me about the Veterans Ambassador Program. And when I think of oral history, the first thing that pops into my head was veterans, Soldiers,” Witmer said.
The internship was a natural fit for Witmer, who has always been interested in listening to veterans’ stories.
“I would go to the … local Dairy Queen around 10, 11 in the morning because I knew there’s a lot of veterans that congregate there, same with like McDonald’s and stuff, and I would always go in there and chit chat with them because they had lots of interesting and cool things to say,” she recalled. After her internship, Witmer continued to volunteer through VAP.
As part of her course credit in an oral history class in 2015, Witmer interviewed the ROTC professor at her university, Capt. Nicholas Furloni, which turned out well, she said. Her next oral history interview was after she started her master’s degree.
“I just finished up my interview last month with another veteran, this one was also from the Vietnam War, Joe Boslet, who volunteers at AHEC, so that interview turned out a lot better than I expected it to,” she said.
Warner’s interviewing guidelines for the program are crucial, Witmer said, but she cautions other ambassadors against sticking to a script. It’s important to create a conversation with a veteran for the interview to go as well as possible, she added.
“I guess my advice would be pretend like it is you and your grandfather, or you and your best friend sitting down at the bar and having drinks. That should be how easy and natural it is. You can plan ahead, definitely if you think of a question you want to ask them, write it down, but don’t set it in stone,” Witmer said.
She said she enjoys volunteering as an ambassador because she is able to hear a different side of history, one that isn’t in the books. “… history books talk a lot about important people, the names, the dates and everything, and you kind of lose the individuality of the story, of the history, so it was really interesting to hear their perspective of it.”
Another ambassador, Rick Olson, is a two-service veteran. He served in the Air Force and was deployed to Vietnam, and then became an officer in the Army after grad school. Olson is an active member of the Carlisle area Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter and discovered the VAP through his work there. His initial contact with the VAP was as an interviewee, he said.
“I must say I was impressed with the whole process. I was recently provided a copy of the audio from (my interview), and I understand that there is a video that ultimately will be acceptable,” Olson recalled. “And you know, that part that excites me is, and this is how I’m starting to sell the program, is that my grandchildren, my great grandchildren and beyond will have access to my history and actually see a video of me speaking of it, and you know, I think there’s a viable legacy that’s being left behind that they will garner from accessing this information in the future.”
During the interview, Olson was asked about how he entered the military, what his experiences were like, what he took away from those experiences, and what he learned from the military that benefitted him later in life. He was also asked about the weapon systems he used. Olson was a bomb loader and a weapons release specialist while he was in the Air Force, and helped develop the Hawk Missile System while he was in the Army.
“I actually physically tested some of these things out on firing ranges, including hot missiles, because ultimately I was a hot missile officer. So I got to fire some pretty expensive bullets,” he said with a chuckle.
Olson has three veterans lined up for interviews for the VAP, though since he hasn’t spoken to them yet, he doesn’t want to reveal their names. His first veteran is an infantryman from the Korean War whose military records were lost for a time. Disabled by injuries from his time in Korea, this veteran spent many years with no support from Veterans Affairs, but has nothing bad to say about the organization.
Olson’s second veteran is a gunner from World War II who was shot down over Europe and became a prisoner of war.
“Now I’m having a problem with getting him interested to come to the table,” Olson said. “Obviously, as a prisoner of war, he’s got some very ugly memories he would care not to discuss, and … we’re not out there asking those questions … We don’t ask how many people did you kill, or this or that … we just want to know what the experience was for you, what was good, how did you benefit, things of that nature. And if they want to talk about some of the bad, we’ll listen.”
The third veteran is the senior surviving officer from a Ranger battalion that was decimated on Hill 854 in Vietnam in 1967, Olson said. This particular veteran will be Olson’s biggest challenge to interview, since he is anti-military, but Olson is confident he’ll be able to get his history recorded.
“In my mind, the biggest obstacle is the survey form itself,” Olson said of nailing down interviews. The VAP determines whom it will interview through the paper survey, but older veterans are often reluctant to fill out the survey because they feel it is a waste of time. In fact, Olson didn’t want to fill out his own survey until he learned the VAP wanted to interview him, at which point he buckled down because he realized the survey was a prerequisite for the oral history interview.
Warner and Olson are discussing how to further improve both the interview and the interview process.
“Like any good, well-run program, to Karl’s credit, he is keeping tabs on what’s working and what’s not, and when he knows something isn’t working, he’s taking action to improve upon it,” Olson said. “So my hat goes off to Karl for the role he’s playing.”
Once interviews are completed, they are scrubbed for sensitive information, the audio transcribed, the video edited, and then archived at USAHEC along with any donated materials.
Warner cautions potential ambassadors that though the program is a volunteer opportunity, it is still a lot of work. He needs passionate people to help collect materials, he said. People interested in volunteering can visit the USAHEC campus in person or call (717) 245-3972, and speak with the program manager.
“In the end, the ambassador has to do the research on the Soldier to make sure what they are saying is actually their history. They’ve also got to become familiar with their interviewees, Warner added. Ambassadors should come to interviews armed with the personal history of their subjects so they can ask the right questions and conduct a successful interview. “The ambassador … is incredibly important to the interview process.”
Both Witmer and Olson are excited to conduct interviews in the coming months. Olson sees the veterans he is scheduled to interview as heroes:
“These guys are the real thing.”
Editor’s Note: To find out more about the VAP or download the survey, visit http://www.carlisle.army.mil/ahec/VeteranSurveys.cfm.