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Preserving veterans stories

October 27, 2011
By RENEE PRUSI - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - Marquette resident Milton Bates is a veteran of the Vietnam War and the son of a veteran of World War II.

Now he's stepping up to help with a project that preserves the personal stories of veterans from all eras.

The Veterans History Project is collecting the oral history of indivdual military members for the Library of Congress. Locally, volunteers from the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program are hoping to record interviews with men and women who have experienced war.

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Bates is one of the volunteers and for him, it carries on his career, in a way.

"The project is a natural continuation of research that I conducted as a college professor," Bates said via email. "Before retiring in 2010, I regularly taught a course in Vietnam War literature. I also published a book and a half-dozen articles about the war."

Another era is of particular interest to Margaret Derwin, who is also volunteering to help with the project.

"I have always been interested in World War II history and have regretted the time that I could have spent asking questions and listening to WWII veterans, especially my father," said Derwin, a Gwinn resident who hails from Houghton.

Veterans from all time periods are being sought to share their stories. Participants in the project will contribute a 60- to 90-minute recorded interview with one of the RVSP volunteers. Then a transcript of the complete interview is prepared, with a copy going to the veteran and another sent to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The collection of these stories is being housed in the American FolkLife Center at the Library of Congress.

The project collects first-hand accounts from veterans from World War I (1914-1920); World War II (1939-1946); the Korean War (1950-1955); the Vietnam War (1961-1975); the Persian Gulf War (1990-1995); and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts (2001-present).

In addition to active duty military, those who were actively involved in supporting the war efforts, like medical volunteers, USO workers and war industry workers, are invited to share their stories.

"As older veterans pass away at an estimated rate of 1,500 per day, our opportunity to preserve their story is lost as well," said Amy Mattson, RVSP of Marquette County's executive director. "Volunteers with the Veterans History Project are motivated to honor our nation's war veterans and collect their stories and experiences while they are still with us."

Derwin echoes that sentiment.

"I am looking forward to listening to the stories of all our veterans and showing my appreciation for their contribution to our country," she said.

For former Marquette University professor Bates, his interest goes beyond just the battlefield.

"Most people, whether they are soldiers or civilians, experience war for a brief period of time, sometimes only minutes," he said. "Yet that experience shapes the rest of their lives - their sense of identity, political views, and relationships with other people.

"Though I'm interested in hearing and recording what are usually called their 'war stories,' I'm even more interested in life stories shaped by war."

The Veterans History Project has already collected 59 local histories from Marquette County since it was first launched in 2005. But Mattson knows there are many more veterans and others associated with the military who have stories to tell.

"The importance of the Veterans History Project lies in the significance of oral histories," she said. "Unlike historical narratives that document events or eras, oral histories involve personal experience, the raw, immediate stuff of lived experience. Not only are oral histories an important method of preserving history, they are also a way of exchanging information between generations."

Mattson hopes veterans won't be too humble to participate.

"It's not bragging," she said. "It's about saving your stories for future generations. Your great-grandchildren will want to hear your stories. This project will help make sure they do."

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.



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