Every veteran has a story. No matter when they served, where they served, or how long they served, every story has value. This is the driving belief behind the Virginia War Memorial’s Oral History Project. Our goal is simple and straightforward: collect and preserve the story of Virginia’s veterans in their own words.
Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to share many stories of Virginia’s service men and women through our From the Archives livestream series. These presentations are always more robust–and I think much more interesting–when we can share the veteran’s experience using their own words. Sometimes, that comes from diary entries or letters that are in the collection. Sometimes, that comes from oral histories. Overwhelmingly, the oral histories in our collection are with World War II veterans. This makes sense, as our previous drive at the turn of the 21st century to collect stories focused on speaking with World War II veterans. As we move forward, we need to speak to veterans of other eras to honor their stories as well.
In a way, the Covid-19 pandemic has facilitated this initiative. While we began with in-person interviews following proper precautions, we soon switched to a virtual format. Conducting interviews virtually allows us to more easily speak with veterans in all areas of the state. For those that live outside of the Richmond area, it is simpler to spend an hour meeting virtually than to devote half a day to travel time. For those veterans still in the civilian workforce, conducting interviews virtually allows them to fit us in over a lunch break or at the end of their work day.
Hearing from individuals about their personal experiences allows larger historical events to be understood on a personal level. Preserving these stories allows VWM staff, educators, and researchers to provide context and make connections. Interviews enrich the collections, and ensure that those who served are not forgotten.
Since we began this program in earnest this past fall, we have spoken with more than forty veterans. These men and women served from Vietnam through the Global War on Terrorism. Some saw combat, some did not. Some were stationed overseas, some were not. Some had twenty year careers, some served just a few years. Some were drafted, some volunteered. Some loved their time in service, some hated it. All of their experiences are valuable.
It is an incredible honor to speak with veterans, and hear directly from them about their lives. There have been interviews where I asked one question and the veteran spoke for thirty uninterrupted minutes; there have been interviews where I asked twenty questions over the course of an hour. The beauty is that each veteran is able to share as much or as little about their life as they would like. There are no wrong answers. I end every conversation with a sense of wonder and awe. I am always grateful for the opportunity to listen, and to preserve these stories for future generations.
Are you interested in sharing your story, and having it preserved in our archives? Please visit vawarmemorial.org/oralhistory to fill out an interest form, and we will be in touch to schedule an interview.
by Heidi Sheldon, VWM Archivist