Veteran’s History Project Brings 87,000 War Stories Home

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Lisa Taylor could be like many government employees in Washington D.C. She’s up early this morning—heading to the office before most on the East Coast are even out of bed. Her desk, like countless others, is seated in a monolithic government building with tight security. Underground tunnels ferry her to and from other monolithic government buildings. But the business-like D.C. atmosphere belies the true nature of her work.

Lisa is a giver. And as her footsteps echo off the walls of the 2.1 million square foot James Madison Building on the Library of Congress campus, she thinks of where it all began, “I started at a non-profit, and this is about as close to non-profit work as you will find in a government job.

Lisa winds down a hallway and opens a door like many others in the capital’s third largest building. She slips quietly into the welcome center of the Veteran’s History Project. Less than two-dozen among the Libary’s thousands of employees work for the project; but big things are coming from their small space.

The Library of Congress campus is comprised of three main buildings. The James Madison building can be seen at right.

The Library of Congress campus is comprised of three main buildings. The James Madison building can be seen at right. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, 2007.

The Library of Congress complex houses a pantheon of America’s most precious historical documents. Enshrined in its halls rest the personal letters of George Washington, the Gutenburg Bible, and the Gettysburg Address; and nestled nearby you’ll find the personal war accounts of America’s veterans— the small team’s handiwork. Collected by volunteers using the project’s Field Kit, the project’s staff has compiled over 87,000 personal war experiences, including letters, photographs, and video interviews.

We consider these materials just as important as far as preservation needs go“, she says. “Chemists are trained to preserve the documents and photographs so they will not deteriorate or fade or any further than they already have. They do whatever they need to make sure those items are around for generations to come.”

Congressionally mandated in 2000, the Veteran’s History Project began as an effort to document the oral history of America’s surviving World War II Veterans who are disappearing at a rate of 700-1,000 per day. But what began as a World War II focused endeavor soon expanded to include veterans from every conflict since the first World War. Filmmakers, authors, and researchers now use the Veteran’s History Project searchable database to learn what military service was truly like, first hand.

Says Taylor, “People can go to textbooks if they want to know the facts of war. What we want to know is the experience of war. What did they feel, what was the food like, the smells, the bootcamps, the traveling overseas. We want to capture that experience.”

It’s estimated that some 17 million veterans are living in the United States—a blessing for the project’s team, but a statistic that illustrates a reality that Lisa is quick to note, “Most of the time, it’s easier to find a veteran than a volunteer.”

Still, with their Field Kit, becoming a volunteer for the Veteran’s History Project is easier than you may think.

The Veteran's History Project is part of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

The Veteran’s History Project is part of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

Many people have family members or friends who are veterans. For Lisa, these are the first places to start, “It’s a nice way to let the veteran know you care and you want to hear their story and preserve it for future generations. Not just for them but for their own family members. The veterans don’t often realize what they saw until they sit down and talk about it; and many of them have never had anybody ask.

We learn a lot by talking to the older veterans whose short term memory is fading. You’d be surprised by the level of detail they recall, down to smells and tastes and sights—that’s exactly what we’re seeking to capture through this project!”

People like Lisa Taylor and the Veteran’s History Project are exactly what Fight Ageism is about. We want you to get out in your community, talk to your elderly neighbors and find out what their life is like. Put a name behind the faces of the seniors you see every day and tell us about it! Pick up your smart phone and document their story—just make sure to get written permission first—then share it with the world on our Facebook page or YouTube.

Make sure to tag your stories #stereotype_this and together we can Fight Ageism!

Written by Joe Sills

Joe Sills

Joe Sills is a writer for Preferred Care at Home, a National Senior Home Care Franchise. Joe is a part of Preferred Care at Home’s Fight Ageism movement. His short stories promoting seniors and their legacy can be found at the Fight Ageism website.