Pat Conway understands the reticence of fellow veterans in talking about their experiences in the Vietnam War. At the time of their return 40-some years ago, the nation had little taste for the discussion.
But times have changed.
“There are guys that I know that have talked about their experiences more in the last 10 years than they did in the previous 30,” said Conway, a state representative from St. Joseph.
An endeavor in Missouri wants to preserve memories of just that sort. And the Missouri Veterans History Project hopes more veterans from the northwestern corner of the state will take part.
Audrey Mack, the project’s executive director, came to St. Joseph on Wednesday and said the idea succeeds because it has so few moving parts. An interviewer sits down with a veteran in front of a video camera. And they talk.
The videos eventually go to the Library of Congress in Washington and to the State Historical Society of Missouri. In addition, the veterans get a copy of the DVD, something they can pass down through generations in their families.
There is no cost to the veteran for participation. And a history of military service gets built, one person at a time.
“We do not edit these interviews in any way, shape or form,” Mack said. “It’s firsthand accounts of historical happenings. It’s from their perspective, from people who were there. It’s not someone else’s perception.”
The idea for this took root in 2000, when Congress passed a measure to begin the Veterans History Project. Missouri became one of the first states to embrace the effort.
Eventually, the Missouri legislature cited fiscal constraints in dialing back funding for the project. At that point, it reformed as a not-for-profit agency, accepting contributions for materials and using volunteers to do the video recordings.
In October, the project conducted its 1,000th interview, though Mack explains that nearly 800 of them have been from the St. Louis area.
Conway, who has recorded his war experience, and Mack have been in talks with Missouri Western State University about a partnership to conduct interviews in this part of the state. Similar partnerships have been formed with other Missouri institutions.
Dr. Gordon Mapley, dean and executive director of the university’s Western Institute, said the project provides a lot of advantages for veterans, students and the community.
“It’s important for people to know what veterans have done for us and continue to do for us,” he said. “In terms of the university, we certainly have the facilities here to provide the space for interviews and we can certainly find students that we can train to do the interviews.”
While the effort began with an emphasis on recording the experiences of World War II veterans, the project welcomes veterans of all eras. The 1,000th interview, in fact, was a Missouri Army National Guard member who told of her service in Afghanistan.
A former Buchanan County clerk, Conway said the person who conducted his interview did so with great skill.
“You actually end up becoming more forthcoming than you thought you would be when you walked in the door,” the state lawmaker said. “From that standpoint, it’s cathartic.”
Mack said the videos, taken collectively, contribute to the history of the nation.
“Hundreds of years from now,” she said, “you’re going to be able to see and hear from these people who experienced these historical events.”
For more information on the Missouri Veterans History Project, visit www.mvhp.net.