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History Project Tells Story of American Vets

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2003 – The letters, memoirs, audio interviews and photographs are "everything that you could imagine," said Ellen McCulloch- Lovell, director of the Veterans History Project, an effort begun by Congress two years ago to preserve the stories and memories of America's war veterans.

The letters, she said, speak of combat and what war was like. There are also stories of pranks and funny misfortunes that occurred while veterans were on leave. But most stories, she said, speak of the closeness and camaraderie within the military "my buddies, my unit, and loyalty," she noted, adding, "Loyalty is a very big theme."

Another theme often written about is love and longing, she said, "you know, longing for the folks back home."

McCulloch-Lovell pointed out that the project is stepping up efforts to ensure the words of thousands of veterans are told to an even greater audience. She said this month the Veterans History Project began airing a series radio broadcast called "Coming Home." The series features the oral biographies of 18 war veterans who tell of their war experiences and life in the military. It's being aired via Public Radio International, which develops and supplies of noncommercial audio content to affiliate stations throughout the country.

McCulloch-Lovell said, "Nobody on the show is famous. It's all the individual stories of people who served."

The Veterans History Project has also expanded features on its Web site, to include more digitized letters, photos and individual stories. Site visitors can now "see and listen" to the stories of 23 veterans, she said. And there is no shortage of stories to tell. In the two years since the project began, McCulloch-Lovell said interest by veterans wanting to share their stories has increased immensely. For the past year, her staff of about 15 has been receiving as many as 200 submissions each week at the project's office, located inside the Library of Congress Folklife Center in Washington.

"I think the older veterans are not sitting back and waiting for someone to interview them," she said. "They're sitting down and writing these remarkable memoirs and personal stories and are sending them to us. We have a memoir that's 20 pages long. And we have another memoir that's 900 pages long."

Still, she said, even with the increased flow of mail arriving daily, the project staff tries to read each and every story. "We try to see and read everything that we can," she noted. "We can't quite keep up with it, but we really try to be familiar with the individual stories in the collection."

The project director observed that the collection is missing letters and stories from soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Once they get back home, and get some rest, and their life has settled, I'm sure we'll hear from them," she said.

McCulloch-Lovell said the letters and memories she now works to preserve and share with the public are much like the ones of her father, who served five years in the Navy aboard the USS Hobby.

She said she once spent an entire week helping her mother make photocopies of thousands of pages of letters her father mailed home during World War II. "We copied 1,822 pages of letters," she recalled.

Her mother had kept the letters for years, preserving them in protective plastic sleeves. "I knew she was archiving them," McCulloch-Lovell said. "It was a big project of hers after he died. It took awhile for me to find the time to spend a week with her, and I'm so glad that I did."

She said her father often spoke of his military experiences and even though she knew about the letters, she never bothered to read them. "I was lucky, my father did tell me about his experiences," she said, "although I never read the letters until he died."

McCulloch-Lovell said that personal experience of helping her mother that week gave her a "strong feeling" for how important it is to save the personal stories of war time -- the "family treasures that tell about the person's experience in their own words."

On the importance of the Veterans History Project, she said that 100 years from now people will be able to look back and understand why veterans served. "A student, or family member or a historian, or journalist is going to be looking at this collection and understanding the experience of people who went through war and how it changed them and how it changed the country," she said.

"Certainly our goals are to collect and to preserve the stories," she pointed out, "but I think we also have two very important goals -- that we honor the service and that we educate future generations about what it's like to serve."

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