Things were quite different when Mesa resident Ann C. Culver graduated from basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in 1958.
“My career was military personnel. We did the orders that sent people overseas or to a different base or reassigned them from one career to another. Now days, everything’s done electronically. But back then, every one of those orders was a piece of paper, and we had to type everything up 100-percent error free and with five copies.”
Culver, who served until she married a handsome airman at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash. (back then, women were discharged from the military upon marriage), recorded these and other memories on DVD as part of the Veterans History Project, a national volunteer effort launched by the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center to record the stories of veterans from all branches of the military.
“I believe the last combat vet from World War I is gone now, but World War II, Korea, Vietnam, The Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq — we want it all. Every one of those vets has a unique perspective to share,” says Larry Edmonds, a communications instructor at ASU Polytechnic in Mesa who has interviewed Arizona veterans and trained others to interview them since the program began nearly 10 years ago.
Edmonds will host a free information session Tuesday for both veterans and non-military citizens who would like to help collect wartime stories and paper artifacts. A similar event is slated for Nov. 4 at the Tempe Historical Museum.
The project also seeks the experiences of civilians who worked in jobs that linked them to the war effort.
“Their perception of wartime is much different from a soldier, sailor or airman, but they had unique experiences, too, and all of those count; they all teach us something about what it’s like to be at war and why people make the choices they do,” he says.
Nationally, the project has collected more than 65,000 personal narratives via audio, video or text recordings, as well as letters from sweethearts, journals, photographs and maps. The materials are housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where they’re available for viewing. Some — currently just 5 percent — are posted online at loc.gov/vets.
Jerry Coddington, a former Air Force missile test engineer from Tempe who helps record local vets’ stories, says there’s a big push to capture the tales of older personnel, as World War II vets are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 per day.
But the stories of younger servicemen and -women coming back from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are just as important. They can tell a side of events rarely seen, despite news coverage and live footage streamed via TV or the Internet from conflict zones.
“That’s how we’re going to learn what it was like to actually be there. Their accounts of what happened to them, personally, are where we’ll learn about what happens in combat in a way you can’t learn by watching TV,” says Edmonds.
No matter their era of service, a big stumbling block to getting vets to speak is their own humility.
“They’re often surprised that anybody’s interested in their story at all. They kind of come back at you with ‘You want to talk to me?’ They just don’t think what they did was anything special. They were just doing their job,” says Edmonds, who served in the Navy Dental Corps during the Vietnam War.
Culver, who volunteers with vets in support of the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, says exceptional experiences lurk beneath that modesty.
“Everyone has a story. Funny, serious, sad — everybody has a story, and it’s a part of our shared history, whether they think it was a big deal or not,” says Culver, who will travel back to McChord with her husband next summer to renew their vows in the base chapel where they married 50 years ago. “What we don’t record, we lose. No one can recount a vet’s story but that vet, because no one lived it but him or her.”