Preserving Veteran Stories to Honor Their Service: Three Things You Can Do

Today we recognize the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I (1914-1918), when the armistice between Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month on November 11, 1918, ending four bloody years of trench warfare. The U.S. joined this war in 1917 after years of neutrality. In 1954, President Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day, which is still observed by WWI Allied Nations, to Veterans Day to honor all who have served in the U.S. military.

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Currently, there are over 20 million American Veterans – men and women – alive who served since WWII. Many civilians, including family members and friends of Veterans, appreciate their service, but wonder how best to show their beyond saying “thank you for your service.” Many Veterans are quiet about their service, but all welcome being treated with dignity and respect, and one way to show this is to understand and listen to their stories when they are willing to share them.

Here are three ways you can honor Veterans:

  1. Learn more about American history. Become better informed about the context of America’s wars and the society of each era that has sent its citizens, often the young, off to war. For instance, one good source of information for understanding Veterans of the Vietnam War, which make up about one half of all Veterans living today, is the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration Teachers’ Toolkit, which provides sources of information, including films, books and online sources, for all ages, from grade school to college level.

  2. Learn more about your own family and friends who served. If you know Veterans, ask them about when and where they served, so you have a better understanding of their military experiences and of our society during the time they served.

    • Be aware. Not all veteran served in conflict, but that does not mean they did not face challenges, even trauma, during their service.

    • Educate yourself.  People of diverse backgrounds have always served in the U.S. military. Historian Andrew Ringlee, Ph.D., talked about diverse members of the military during the Vietnam War earlier this year at Bayliss Public Library in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Poor people and new immigrants have used the military to get an education and improve their lives. Women have served since the Revolutionary War. Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans have all served with honor, despite discrimination. Learn more about their strength and determination to serve their country.

    • Listen empathetically. Each veteran has a unique story. Not all will talk. Some have never been asked to share their story. Others can be encouraged by sincerity and patience. The best thing you can do is to listen. Learn how to ask simple but intelligent questions to encourage communication, like the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) has developed for its Veterans survey program.

  3. Promote oral military history. Support efforts in your community and around the country that promote oral history of military Veterans. Provide opportunities and encourage Veterans to share their stories. These could range from short recorded podcasts, such as what KANAVA did with five Vietnam Veterans at a recognition ceremony for Vietnam Veterans and families held earlier this year in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Oral histories could also be collected through a more formal program, such as the Department of Defense 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Commission, which films interviews of Vietnam Veterans that will ultimately be submitted to the Library of Congress. Looking to the future and the cross-generational opportunity that oral histories provide, USAHEC has developed a program for high school students to learn how to conduct oral history interviews and links students to all generations of Veterans.

As you observe Veterans Day this year in ceremonies of remembrance, also remember that Veterans, whether they served in WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other operations in peace and war since the end of WWI, are living pieces of history. Honor them. Ask them where they served.  When?  What branch of service?  Begin a conversation with a Veteran.

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Susan Puska