Even a cursory glance at the obituary section tells us a lot of local veterans are leaving this earth daily. Nationally, we’re losing roughly 372 World War II veterans a day, with Korean War and Vietnam War veterans not too far behind.
Too many veterans are taking their experiences with them to the grave.
For Henry Dreier, the military community liaison at the Technical College of the Lowcountry and a U.S. Marine veteran of Afghanistan, capturing the stories of local veterans before it’s too late has become a personal mission.
“I think that capturing these stories is important for myriad reasons, especially when talking about older veterans,” said Dreier. He points out that the escalating loss of World War II veterans represents a kind of a turning point for historians and researchers.
“Intimate details and the true emotional tax of such experiences were lost with time,” he said. “That is something we should work really hard to ensure doesn’t happen again.”
Think, for a moment, if Ulysses Grant hadn’t written his post-Civil War memoirs — now largely considered the finest autobiography of any former president. Or if George Patton had never set pen to paper to recount his experiences in the European theater of World War II. Simply put, we would not have half the perspective we now do.
Andrew Huber, a liaison specialist at the Library of Congress who is working on the Veterans History Project in Washington, hopes we'll stop thinking hypothetically and start acting.
The project is creating an oral history archive at the Library of Congress that preserves and makes available primary source interviews with U.S. veterans. It’s important not only for the present, but also for future researchers and historians and members of the general public in helping understand the realities of war and military service and their place in America.
It was at a recent conference in San Antonio, Texas, where Huber was presenting the project, that Dreier became "instantly hooked.” The two were soon planning how TCL’s Student Veterans of America chapter could bring the project to Beaufort. It bears pointing out that the Library of Congress doesn’t just bring a road show to every small town in America.
"Beaufort has such a rich history of military service and tradition that we couldn't pass up an opportunity to get these local stories,” said Huber. “Families of veterans can access these interviews years or even decades down the line as a family legacy.”
Before long, Dr. Stephen Wise of the Parris Island Museum was involved as the host of the venue for the interviews. The project finally comes to fruition at the end of July.
On July 31, veterans can participate in the sharing of letters, photographs and be filmed from 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. at Parris Island.
To participate, veterans simply need to fill out the short form available on the TCL website, www.tcl.edu/military-programs/the-veterans-history-project/.
Beaufort is, in many ways, the ideal place for such a project.
The nature of our community attracts many veteran retirees.
There are some, like Gen. Arthur E. “Art” Brown, a retired U.S. Army four-star general, who have been a positive force in Beaufort County for years. As a former vice chief of staff of the Army during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure, Brown surely has some great stories to tell for posterity.
But so do many local gunnery sergeants and corporals.
Not every story is going to be about Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima. But somewhere in Beaufort is someone who was in a jungle in Cambodia or Vietnam or a barrack in Beirut or simply a hangar outside of Ogden, Utah, with a unique perspective.
There are also other sensitive issues to contend with, including the many women and minorities who have served our country. Dreier calls these “unique situations” that also deserve attention.
“They offer us a priceless look into the human condition, and can only serve to help us grow as a people,” he said.
For that to happen, however, we just need our veterans to talk into the camera.
When they’re done, all we have to do is sit back and listen.
We'll all learn something.