Vietnam Veterans of America
The Vietnam Project at McClure: Collecting Oral Histories of Rural & Small-Town Veterans
Beginning in spring 2017, I instituted a Vietnam Project at the McClure Archives and University Museum, where I serve as Director. The McClure exists to provide information about history and world cultures to the people of central Missouri. It is part of the University of Central Missouri, a public university with a student body of approximately 14,000, where I also teach anthropology.
As both a museum professional and an educator, my job is to share stories with others. The Vietnam War remains a sensitive topic in America. Those who lived in that era remember it vividly and personally, while those born in the generations after have an ever-decreasing understanding of the war and the people who fought it.
Somehow, I had to bridge these gaps, preserve the stories of Vietnam-era veterans, and make sure those veterans were given the respect that they had earned. I also had to make these memories accessible to 21st century students.
I wanted the stories of Vietnam War veterans to be not just for them and their families. They had to be made available to a larger audience as a tool to study and understand the events and costs of the Vietnam War, as well as its aftermath.
There are three keys to the successful Vietnam Project at McClure, and they are keys that can make any similar project successful: creating partnerships, training volunteers, and working with local groups. Since the beginning of this project, my volunteers and I have interviewed more than twenty-five Vietnam veterans on and off camera, resulting in more than a hundred hours of interviews.
Veterans interviewed are from all branches of the military. The group includes veterans from the first Americans in-country to the last Marines in the Saigon Embassy. It has also resulted in the creation of a new collection at McClure, a Vietnam War collection that includes photographs, memorabilia, uniforms, and books written by veterans. Any community could undertake this work, help local veterans and their families, and preserve these stories for the future.
There are a variety of ways organizations can create partnerships to make a Vietnam War project successful. I formed a partnership with the local PBS affiliate (KMOS-TV) and the university’s social studies education program. PBS affiliates have endless resources for those working on Vietnam War history, including programming kits and potential grant funds for projects that can be linked to the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary. Local affiliates are focused on local stories and have specialists who can do the technical work that you may not be prepared to do.
Social studies educators are trained to teach American history in our high schools. At a college or university, the people who run those programs know every high school history teacher in the area. The first thing that my partners and I did was hold a focus group to find out what our local high school students studied about the Vietnam War. The teachers told us they do not really teach the Vietnam War because they do not have resources for their students, and they do not have local stories they can use. They wanted to do more, but could not do so themselves.
Clearly, oral histories of Vietnam War veterans are needed in our classrooms. Together, KMOS and I devised a plan to collect oral histories from veterans with the intent that they be made available to teachers. I would conduct the interviews; KMOS would record and distribute them.
When we asked teachers how they wanted to gain access to these interviews, they asked for digital, online databases. Making the interviews available online to teachers and students became a key part of our project. KMOS was able to provide grants targeted for the Vietnam War commemoration to film my interviews, and to make them available for free to K-12 teachers.
You can also seek out partnerships with recognized Vietnam War Commemorative Partners at www.vietnamwar50th.com This DoD program allows museums, archives, and other institutions to become “official partners,” which means they will provide resources and help to record and preserve Vietnam War history.
The steps for training volunteers to conduct interviews is much simpler than it may sound. Most volunteers are worried about three things: what questions they will ask, how veterans will react to their questions, and what equipment they might have to work with. For questions, my project relies on a revision of the questions proposed by the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (www.loc.gov/vets).
The Veterans History Project was created by congressional legislation in 2000 and is intended to help communities collect oral histories of veterans. Their Project Field Kit includes a series of questions, as well as sample consent forms, tips for interview techniques, and ideas about finding veterans to interview.
While the questions are tested and useful, I recommend getting a group of veterans together to discuss potential additions or corrections. For example, adding questions about homecoming and postwar activities among Vietnam veterans was a key addition I made.
My volunteers were college students—specifically a class I teach on ethnographic methods. Doing an interview project is an opportunity to create relationships with schools, colleges, and community organizations who can conduct interviews. This is beneficial for both the veterans and the interviewers.
My students learned how to ask questions, how to take notes, and what it felt like to work in an on-camera situation. At the same time, veterans knew they were talking to students, and they spent as much time teaching as anything else.
The students also transcribed all the interviews, thereby providing the McClure with trained volunteers, recorded interviews, and transcripts that we can index based on branch, years of service, unit, and so on. Any organization can find these same volunteers. Consider, for example, a 4-H or Scout project involving interviews or contacting your regional college or university anthropology, history, or communication programs to build a partnership that will bring volunteers to your project. You can provide them with skills that will last a lifetime.
Working with Local Groups
In order to make my project a success, I had to find Vietnam veterans. I devised a one-page handout and asked to speak to every social and service organization in the region. I spent most of the spring and summer at American Legion, VFW, Rotary, Optimist, and Lions Club meetings. I visited veterans’ homes and clinics and mailed flyers to VVA chapters and VA hospitals. I even posted flyers in rural gas stations and small town diners.
This led me to a network of veterans in small towns across central Missouri whose stories are incredible and all but unknown. I interviewed one veteran, for example, who had participated in evacuating refugees even though he was trained as an aircraft mechanic. Another veteran had saved countless lives as a battalion medic. A third led overnight raids into Cambodia.
I came to meet and know these veterans because they listened to me at a meeting or got a flier in the mail or saw my number on a feed store bulletin board. It is integral to my project that local veterans—the men and women of American farms and small towns—know how valued their stories are.
In late June, the McClure hosted The Wall That Heals, a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Inside the museum were two large television screens where visitors could watch any of sixteen interviews we had produced. Visitors crowded into the gallery, sitting on the floor to watch the interviews. Interviewed veterans brought their families to sit and watch on the big screen.
As this school year began, we had twenty-two interviews posted online for teachers to access. Working with KMOS, we are conducting panel discussions across the state about the Vietnam War featuring veterans who have participated in the interview project. As the project moves into its second year, there is a waiting list of veterans to be interviewed on camera.
As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I know how vital it is that these stories be recorded. My own father died from Agent Orange cancers in 2011 before I could ask him the questions I now ask so many others. Projects like these, with community partners and basic planning, can protect our shared stories and teach future generations about the Vietnam War and its veterans.
It is work we simply must undertake, and it is our ethical duty to the men and women who did not get the welcome home they earned.
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