War story project calls all veterans
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Glenville State College students are traveling West Virginia's hills and hollows, looking for veterans with stories to tell.
They're finding stories in droves: Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, soldiers, sailors and Marines who had barely left the West Virginia hills when they found themselves on foreign soil, fighting for their lives.
Robert Wilmoth from Ivydale spent his years in the Army disarming Korean landmines. John Nicholson of Weston lost a lung after a Vietnam mortar shell hit his tent.
Glenville State's West Virginia Veterans Legacy Project is collecting interviews with combat and non-combat veterans around the state, from all branches of the military and every war from World War II to the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The project started in 2008 as the World War II Heroes Project, which collected oral histories from veterans of that war. In 2010, Glenville received a $350,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand the program to include other West Virginia veterans.
About $50,000 was spent on new video and audio recording equipment, computers and digitization equipment that allows interviewers to scan photos, medals, and documents in the field.
Students originally focused on vets from central West Virginia, the counties surrounding Glenville State. They have accumulated 138 oral histories so far.
"Now we're moving on to get a better representation of the entire state," said Jason Gum, who oversees Glenville's archives.
West Virginia University graduate students also are helping to find veterans in the northern part of the state.
Glenville students recently spent two days at the veteran's hospital in Beckley. They interviewed a dozen veterans and came away with several hours of footage. They plan to visit a Clarksburg nursing home later this month. They already have 30 interviews lined up there.
Videos from the interviews, along with transcripts, biographies, and photos of veterans will appear on the Veterans Legacy Project's website, www.glenville.edu/veterans.
The site currently has about 20 veteran profiles up, but Gum said he's trying to get more online as soon as possible.
"What we're moving towards now is getting all this stuff accessible," he said.
Some of the stories are difficult to hear.
A woman named Thelma Quaid told an interviewer about her husband, who was stationed in Korea when their son Stan was born. He came home on leave when Stan was four months old.
After the husband returned to Korea, Thelma established a ritual. Every night before bed, she showed Stan his father's picture and told him, "This is your dad."
Two years later, her soldier came home for good. When he walked in the door, Thelma told Stan to give his dad a hug.
The boy ran over, grabbed the picture from the shelf and squeezed it to his chest.
Joseph Kemper, a Vietnam veteran from Weston, told Gum what it was like to return to West Virginia after completing his service.
"People kind of looked at you like they didn't know what to do with you. People that I had known all my life," he said in his interview.
"And I wasn't sure what to do with myself either for those couple months. So it was kind of an unwelcomed feeling, almost, that I had."
Damon West, a Clay man who served in the Army during World War II, recalled a child he met in Germany.
The girl was just wandering around with nothing to eat. Both her father and mother were dead. But West said the child's grandmother had asked her to do three things:
"Number one, find the Americans. Find the American Army, and they will treat you all right. Number two, always carry your Bible with you. And number three, when they ask you what you are, tell them, 'I am somebody.'"
Autumn Harkins, a freshman education major, got involved with the project through her job at Glenville's library. The school offered library staff extra hours if they helped transcribe interviews and write short biographies of veterans.
Harkins has completed three transcriptions and biographies so far, on a World War II veteran, a military policeman who served during the Vietnam War and a military nurse who also served in Vietnam.
"It's been unreal, just to get insight on these people's lives," Harkins said. "Some of the things I've heard, I didn't learn in school. I love every interview I get to transcribe because I get to learn a little bit more."
She said she was particularly surprised to learn how differently today's soldiers are treated after returning from war, compared to how they were treated in the 1960s and '70s.
The interviews Harkins transcribed included accounts of people throwing things at soldiers' buses and picketing.
"I heard in books that a lot of people didn't favor the war and were rude to veterans. It shocks me how different it was compared to nowadays. I know people now aren't favorable towards the war but they'd never consider disgracing a veteran who came home," she said.
She said she wasn't very interested in history before starting on this project.
"I was surprised how much I've become entranced. These stories are an important part of history. If they're lost you can't really learn from that experience."
Mark Geiger, 43, has interviewed his stepfather and his neighbor for the oral history project. Both are Vietnam veterans.
"It's one of the best things I've done at school," said Geiger, a senior.
Geiger said he's known his stepfather for about 20 years and has never heard him talk about his military service. Glenville interviewers ask interview subjects when they were first able to talk about their experiences overseas
"He said, 'This is it,'" Geiger said.
Though Geiger did not know his neighbor very well, he was able to spend a few hours in the man's living room with a camera rolling.
"I got to spend the whole afternoon with him. He gave a powerful interview. One of the questions is, Is there any advice you'd like to give to young people who are considering joining the military? This guy said, 'No. All I can say is keep your powder dry.'"
But, after a minute, he went on.
"I'm a Vietnam veteran," he told Geiger. "Everybody that got killed is on the wall. But me, I've got Agent Orange. When I die, I'll be just as dead as the rest of them."
"There's no room on the wall for me," the man said.
Geiger says he's enjoyed reading history for years but participating in this oral history project has given him a greater appreciation for it. He compares the work to interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
The WPA hired unemployed writers to interview the few ex-slaves still living at the time. Those narratives have since been anthologized and studied by historians around the world.
"If it wasn't for a program like that, we would have never had that. That's what I like about this program," he said. "If you're talking to a person that actually lived through it, they're going to give you a better window on it."
He said he would like to do more interviews for the project. The oral history project even has Geiger reconsidering his major.
"I was going to be an environmental scientist. I might change it to history," he said.
Bob Henry Baber was named project director for the West Virginia Veterans Legacy Project in January. He was working in his office recently when he received a call from his son, Cody. Cody was in the library, transcribing his first interview for the oral history project.
"He said 'Dad, I've got to come see you.'"
When he got to Baber's office, he shut the door and burst into tears. Cody was transcribing an interview from an Iraq War veteran.
"He said 'This guy is only five years older than me. I had no idea what they were going through.'"
Baber, whose father was a World War II veteran, said he would like to see more interviews with veterans from more recent conflicts like Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and more interviews with women veterans.
Interviewers also are interested in talking to family members of deceased veterans.
"That veteran's no longer here with us to tell their story, but somebody's got to tell if for them," Baber said.
Baber would like to turn the interviews into an hour-long "Ken Burns-style" documentary. He also would like to put together a photo book of the veterans with poignant quotes from the interviews and create traveling exhibits of veterans' memorabilia.
He estimates the school would need another $100,000 grant to create those products.
Baber, an established poet, wants to write a play based on the veterans interviews, too.
"This really is an opportunity for me to celebrate West Virginia," he said.
For more information on the West Virginia Veterans Legacy Project, visit www.glenville.edu/veterans or call 304-462-6163.