A few months ago, I had the privilege to meet and interview some veterans.
The National Association of Court Reporters in conjunction with the Library of Congress is making an effort to record as many personal stories from our military veterans as we can get.
We've missed our opportunity with the WWI vets. The last WWI vet died earlier this year and with him went our shot at those stories. Not a single story from WWI vet was officially recorded. We have very little time to get as many of the WWII vets as we can.
My school hosted a recording day. All the court reporters were ones with experience and the interviewers were students. All volunteered their time, unpaid, to make this day happen.
We had about ten veterans show up.
I was standing at the door when Eddie came in. Eddie is a WWII vet and he's so funny! He came in with his walker and his oxygen and sat down in the chairs by the door. His wife was with him as was his nurse. He looked at me and in his wheezy voice said, "I'm the guy." I smiled and said, "You're the guy?" He laughed and tapping his chest said, "I'm the guy. I'm the guy you want to talk to." Then he told me how he was one of the first off the boat at Normandy.
We led him down the hall and got him a seat. There was this entire formal opening ceremony with a high school ROTC colorguard, the singing of the National Anthem and everything! Then we split off to interview the vets.
My veteran was Philip W. He was an Air Force lifer who was Active Duty during the Korean and the Vietnam wars. I was given a sheaf of papers with questions to ask.... all about his parents/siblings/marriage and then we went on to his military life. Basic Training, AIT (where they teach you your job), and Active Duty service is asked about. (There was a surprising bent toward asking about any racism among the ranks which I thought was odd.)
Philip was adorable! He was a very snappy dresser and had the best smile! He told me all kinds of things and some of those things were very difficuly for him.
He has an enormous amount of survivor guilt. He was signing up for the Marines with his very best friend. The Marines had a waiting list of 2 months. After a month, Philip went down to the courthouse where the recruiters were to see how it was going. In the front vestibule to the building, was an Air Force recruiter who got Philip! He joined the Air Force (no waiting list!) and tried to talk his buddy into it, too, but his buddy decided to wait for the Marines. Philip didn't get shipped overseas during the Korean War but his best friend went right away and was in the first wave of infantry that got completely wiped out.
Philip was tearing up and I was trying hard not to join him. He said how he should've been there with his friend and he still, sixty years later, feels so guilty about that. It was heartbreaking.
The interview went on and one of the questions I had on my list was about pranks! Philip said he wasn't much of a prankster but he did put a ketchup soaked tampon on the pillow of a fellow soldier that had passed out one night. His face was beat red telling us about that!
He told about being in Vietnam, walking along the street and seeing a shoeshine boy blow himself up with three GI's sitting at the shoeshine booth. And he also told about how he was on the flight line the whole time (as a First Sgt.) and never went to the field. They would get about 25 mortar rounds a week lobbed at them on the flight line. One night, he heard the usual whistling sound of a mortar coming in but the actual BOOM was really muted. He went outside to see what happened to that bomb. It threaded a needle and landed inside the door of the barracks right next to his and blew up. He said it was all hands on deck trying to get people out of the rubble and save as many as they could. He said he saw a hand in the rubble and pulled on it - it was attached to an arm but nothing else. He told how this Colonel was taking pictures and not being much help. He shoved the Col. out of the way and told him to help or get the fuck out of the way. He almost got court-marshalled for that!
We talked about his life in the military and about his life after he got out. He talked about the VA and how the "shrink" there was helping him and he was finally starting to forgive himself for "abandoning" his childhood friend all those years ago.
We laughed and laughed with Philip! We cried a bit, too. He was such a great story teller! And, the best part for the court reporter, he spelled every name he mentioned, whether it was a person's name or names of the places he was stationed - brilliant!
This is an ongoing project. If you know a veteran, please let them know about it. If you are a veteran, please participate. If you are (or know) a court reporter, please volunteer your time for this wonderful event. You can make it a simple affair - no colorguard necessary - and the transcripts you make count towards your CEU's (you can do up to ten transcripts for a total CEU of 1).
It's an amazing experience. All the volunteers heard their vet say, " Wow. I've never told anyone this before." I was going to suggest that if you have a vet in your life, to sit down with a tape recorder (or whatever new-fangled equivalent you may have) and ask for their story. I don't know if that would work though. There's something about telling a stranger things that you would NEVER tell your family members (or even your friends, sometimes!). Definitely give it a shot though!
My name is now in the Library of Congress, Ruth!