U.S. Veterans Day Marked by Release of Vets' Stories

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
November 10, 2004
November 11, 1918, was the day that brought to a close "the most
destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals," said the
U.S. resolution establishing November 11 as a national holiday. The day
marked the end of the Great War (later known as World War I).

In 1926 the U.S. Congress designated November 11 as Armistice Day to commemorate "the resumption of the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed" and to honor those soldiers both alive and fallen who served during the war.

Unfortunately "the war to end all wars" would not turn out to be so. After World War II and Korea, Congress changed the name of the day in 1954 to Veterans Day in order to include all soldiers who had served in combat. Since then other armed conflicts, from Vietnam to Iraq, have ensued, swelling the ranks of U.S. veterans into the millions.

As the U.S. honors veterans of all its wars tomorrow, Veterans Day, the U.S. Library of Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs are working to make sure the nation never forgets their service.

Sharing Their Stories

Documenting the wartime experiences of the United States' veterans and helping those stories come alive for the public is the primary goal of the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project. Established in 2000 under the Clinton Administration, the project was initiated by Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin, project director Diane Nester Kresh said.

The project has accumulated over 25,000 oral and video histories, letters, diaries, photographs, and artwork. Contributions have come from high school students, professional folklorists, and community groups like churches, veterans groups, and retirement homes.

The materials represent soldiers' experiences and civilian support efforts from the five major wars of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the gulf war.

One hundred and thirty of the artifacts and oral histories are from veterans of World War I, a rare population, since they served between 1914 and 1918. The heaviest representation comes from World War II veterans who were more likely to write letters and keep diaries than later generations, Kresh said. The recent dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., she said, also renewed interest in this era and encouraged more veterans to share their experiences.

Veterans from Korea, Vietnam, and the gulf war are less likely to come forward, due to the political and social circumstances surrounding these conflicts, Kresh said. "We view it as a challenge, then, for us to get out there," she said, "because we feel that we have an obligation and a duty, really, to make sure that all these stories are told."

Living History

Just as important as collecting these experiences, Kresh said, is making sure they are shared. The project includes 600 digitized stories on the Veterans History Project Web site, the National Geographic book Voices of War (with over 70 stories), and a successful Public Radio International radio series.

The collection is meant to inform and inspire. "We view this as an education outreach project as much as we view it as building an archive for future scholars," Kresh said.

Making these materials accessible to researchers and the public alike sets the project apart from a typical museum collection, Kresh noted. Using the Library of Congress's state-of-the-art preservation techniques such as digitization and climate-controlled storage facilities, artifacts are carefully protected and prepared for future use.

"In addition to honoring vets and their families and their experiences through the art of storytelling with the artifacts and the other materials that we're bringing in," Kresh said, "we're really building an active research collection that we expect to be used."

The project officially plans to extend its collection to include veterans from the 21st-century Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, but Kresh welcomes all servicemen or servicewomen who have seen combat to contact the project. "We are always interested in encouraging any veteran to step forward and tell his or her story," Kresh said.

Paying Tribute

Retired Army Brigadier General John W. Nicholson, undersecretary for memorial affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is responsible for ensuring that the United States' 25 million current veterans and their eligible dependents have a final and appropriate resting place. With 1,800 veterans dying each day, this is no small task.

Nicholson, who served 30 years in the Army in Germany, Switzerland, Lebanon, Korea, Vietnam, and the U.S. before heading up his current post, is overseeing an ambitious plan to increase interment capacity by 85 percent within the next five years. He wants to expand the administration's existing 120 cemeteries and build 11 more.

He also plans to bring these cemeteries, many of which have suffered years of neglect, up to what he calls shrine status: "an appearance," Nicholson said, "that befits the dignity and the sacrifice of those interred there and reflects the gratitude of a nation that realizes what those people did for our nation."

The purpose behind these efforts is very clear to Nicholson. "I want every cemetery … whether you're walking through it or driving by it, to inspire people with patriotism, to evoke gratitude, and to teach history," he said.

By doing so, Nicholson said, the nation will be fulfilling its promise to honor those who have died in its service. "We want those cemeteries to reflect that a grateful nation is sponsoring [them]," he said.

Some cemeteries, such as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, Nicholson noted, already hold this status and attract as many as 12,000 people to its annual Veterans Day activities.

In speaking at such events, Nicholson and other VA officials touch on several themes.

"We talk to people about the meaning of Veterans Day, about the willingness to sacrifice on the part of veterans and their families," Nicholson said. "We talk about the fact that freedom's not free … [and] currently we talk about the fact that we're at war."

Jennifer Vernon is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

A new National Geographic television special,
Arlington: Field of Honor, airs in the United States on PBS tonight.

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