University center gathers recent veterans’ oral histories

The exhibit will be unveiled in January.

by Betsy Graca

Kelly Heskett recently learned Air Force members do far more than fly airplanes to Iraq.

Heskett, an English studies senior, is taking part in the Warrior to Citizen oral history project conducted by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship – the only program collecting veterans’ experiences through oral histories before the conflict in Iraq has ended.

“It was absolutely stuff that sounded like it was out of a movie and [the veteran] lived it,” Heskett said. “It’s a totally eye-opening experience in learning what they do for our country in ways I didn’t even know.”

She said in her interviewing of a veteran, Heskett learned she had also studied rocket science and international negotiations all over the world.

Kristin Farrell , coordinator for the project, which is part of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said it is part of the integration process for returning veterans.

Many of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are University students, Farrell said. So far, 15 interviews have been conducted and they plan on doing 15 more.

In Minnesota, she said, there aren’t necessarily military bases where families and soldiers can get support.

Steve Biorn , a veteran who spent a year in Iraq and is now a biochemistry senior at the University, is participating in the oral histories project.

Biorn, who works with the Veterans Transition Center on campus, said when he first returned from Iraq, it took him a couple years to want to talk about his experiences. However, he said it’s important to give the University a better understanding of what goes on while serving in the military.

“Capturing their stories is imperative to know what is going on in our country and our world,” Heskett said. “It’s history and it needs to be recorded.”

She added that personal stories are central to historical documentation rather than the dates found in history text books.

Biorn echoed Heskett in saying the histories will provide the community with more than just numbers, but rather actual experiences.

He said while World War II veterans often convey their stories to grandchildren years later, the recent stories from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will also benefit generations down the road.

The interviewers are volunteers who undergo training before speaking to the veterans. Training includes guidance from a professional oral histories collector and a military member to provide both Middle Eastern background and sensitivity when speaking with vets.

Recent graduate and interviewer Stephanie Wilkes said in her experiences with the project, political beliefs haven’t really played a role in the history collection process.

“I don’t really think it matters what your beliefs are on the war, or what your beliefs are politically,” she said. “These people are still serving our country and they still did something valuable and I think it’s important for everyone to realize that.”

Farrell said the center will continue collecting histories – the next training session for interviewers will be on Sept. 11 – and the collection will be released in January.

How exactly the exhibit will appear is still being explored, Farrell said, but visitors will be able to listen to audio recordings and view personal artifacts including photos from the veterans.