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The Library of Congress currently has about 98,000 stories from U.S. veterans catalogued in its archives, including memoirs, letters, oral histories, photographs, and original artwork. Of those 98,000 collections, only about 550 relate to vets who have lived in the District.
Enter this year’s Veterans History Project—a congressional-approved LoC initiative that began in 2000. The Library hopes to boost the number of D.C.-area veterans whose stories it contains by having volunteers help conduct interviews, and it’s offering them free recording equipment and interview spaces to achieve that goal. The District is home to roughly 30,000 U.S. vets.
“We’re about to reach our 100,000 collection milestone,” says Andrew Huber, a liaison specialist for the Veterans History Project. “Since we started and are based in D.C., and D.C. is underrepresented in terms of veterans’ testimonies, we’d like our 100,000th to be a D.C. veteran, symbolically. We anticipate reaching that by the end of the year or after.”
Volunteers are asked to identify veterans they may know and interview them for at least 30 minutes; all veterans are eligible for the project, regardless of whether they served in combat. For guidance, the Library provides a field kit on how to conduct an interview with a veteran, and Huber says his team will walk anyone through the process. He adds that interviews could be conducted in the Library itself, in the James Madison Memorial Building. The Buffy and William Cafritz Family Foundation is significantly sponsoring the D.C.-area campaign, in honor of D.C. resident and World War II veteran William Cafritz.
A number of reasons may explain why D.C.-area vets are underrepresented in the Library’s archives. Huber says the project has historically relied on word-of-mouth and its partner organizations to reach veterans; additionally, many veterans in D.C. area (especially affluent ones) may not take advantage of local services that function as access points for the VHP.
Then there are psychological realities veterans face, both in the District and elsewhere.
“The No. 1 reason that veterans may be reluctant to share their stories is because they’re traumatic,” Huber explains. “Another common reason is they feel they didn’t do enough: ‘I didn’t do anything, but my buddy did. They’re the real heroes.’ We’re not just looking for Medal of Honor winners; we need a complete picture of what service is like.”
Among the roughly 550 District veterans whose stories the Library has collected, most served during World War II (45 percent), followed by Vietnam (20 percent), the Korean War (15 percent), the Cold War (11 percent), the Persian Gulf War (three percent), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (three percent combined). The remaining three percent were active during World War I and smaller conflicts like those in Somalia and Grenada.
You can read more about the project here.
Photo via U.S. Library of Congress