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An Oral History Boom: Hundreds of Groups Are Recording Veterans' Stories

Encouraged by a Library of Congress initiative, volunteers and non-profit groups around the country are recording and preserving veterans' voices.

At the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda, Jim Miele, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran sat in front of a video camera and began reminiscing about his war years.

"I was in Charly Company first engineers," he said to interviewer Martin Madert, a producer with the "Witness to War" website. He recounted his days as a demolition expert and later as a self-described "tunnel rat" who crawled through underground enemy bunkers.

Credit Cathy Carter
Jim Miele served in the Vietnam War and volunteers at the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda.

"Put yourself in a closet and close the door. It's pitch black," Miele said to the camera. "You have a little flashlight. They can see you all the way down, and you can't see them."

Miele said he rarely spoke about Vietnam for decades. But after be began volunteering at the Military Heritage Museum several years ago, visitors began asking him about his service. Now, Witness to War, a nonprofit group, will include his oral history among more than 6,000 stories from veterans and active-duty service members.

"It feels good that people want to listen to what you did over there," Miele said. "I think that a lot of Vietnam Vets, or even World War II or the Korean War, there was no way of getting it off their chest."

Kathleen Roth of the museum said its was gratifying to host the taping.

"It's wonderful to know that these stories will be preserved for posterity and for the younger generation," she said.

Witness to War is just one of several dozen groups that are gathering oral histories around the country. The testimonies recorded in Punta Gorda will also be screened at the Military Heritage Museum and eventually be shared with the Veterans History Projectat the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. 

Project director Karen Lloyd says the collection, which also can be viewed online, includes the voices of more than 110,000 veterans.  

"We got over 3,400 interviews last year, and my staff did less than 200," Lloyd said. "So that really talks to the volunteer effort that's going on across our nation."

The U.S. Congress unanimously voted to support legislation creating the Veterans History Project in 2000.

Scout troops, houses of worship, and retirement communities are among those that have gathered oral histories.

And Lloyd says there's a simple reason why. It's because they can.

In an age where even Hollywood movies can be shot on an iPhone, more people than ever are able to produce content.

"You don't need a professional sound studio to get a great interview," Lloyd said. "It's so much easier."

This past year, the Veterans History Project website attracted more than 3.5 million page views, and about 40 school groups visited the collection at the Library of Congress.

While some of the veterans' recollections are steeped in patriotism or nostalgia, many share less pleasant memories of their military experience and its aftermath.  

Florida National Guard Sergeant Mike Bernicchi began his session at the Punta Gorda museum by recalling his first deployment in 2005. 

"We flew into Kuwait. I actually turned 23-years-old on the flight over," Bernicchi told Madert, the interviewer.  "And I remember as soon as we crossed the wire, it was real."

Bernicchi, a high school English teacher, concluded his third overseas tour in November. He encouraged other troops and veterans to share their experiences.

"I feel like the more we talk about things, especially like veteran suicide, the less power you give it," he said. "So by making something normal and talking about it openly, I think that puts a lot of the regret, a lot of the guilt, a lot of that stuff to bed."

So many people signed up to be interviewed in Punta Gorda that it took three days to record them all. Karen Lloyd at the Library to Congress said with 18 million veterans in the country, there are a lot of stories yet to be told.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.