By Allie Burks
The Commerce Journal
An endeavor to preserve the stories of war veterans and their families kept some students in town for the summer.
The East Texas War and Memory Project of Texas A&M University-Commerce sprouted from a hunger to get involved with history and led to a current 69 interviews as the project continues to grow.
Created to celebrate and honor the sacrifices of men and women who served in the United States Armed Forces, the project is a collaborative initiative with the university’s Honors College, the James G. Gee Library, the Department of History, the Department of Literature and Languages, and the Office of Institutional Advancement.
It all started when Dr. Eric Gruver, history professor and Honor’s College advisor, began looking for history courses that would allow students to work with oral histories. He developed his World War II history class that inspired students to get involved immediately and harvested a passion for working with living history.
It was in this class that senior Hayley Hasik, a history/English double major, started developing the desire to transition from the classroom to the real world. She realized the opportunity during the fall semester in Gruver’s World War II class where students worked with oral histories; the collection and study of historical information using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews. She started conspiring with fellow history majors to continue working on the histories and possibly meet one of the individuals.
“The students started saying how cool it was working with living history and wanted to keep working with the oral histories, saying that they wanted to meet these guys,” said Gruver. “I went to [university archivist] Andrea Wettle to see if it would be achievable and we put together an internship.”
Five founding students started the internship alongside Hasik, who took on the role of coordinator, in January 2013. These included senior history/English double major, Travis Ueckert; sophomore sociology/history double major, Courtney Crumpton; sophomore history major, Jackson Dailey; sophomore history major, Jacob Ham; and junior human performance major, Kyle Hackney.
For the first seven weeks the interns worked on how to approach and converse with the veterans, and finally met with the Marta Konczak on Feb. 22, the week before spring break, at Gee Library. Freshly-trained for interviewing, the six interns stayed over spring break for four more interviews.
Part of oral history includes obtaining information from different perspectives. Gathering the perceptions from persons who observed the wars are just as important as the accounts from the veterans themselves. For this reason the now 14 interns of the project look to speak with anybody who had a life experience with war. The wife or children of a veteran will sometimes sit in the interviews and talk from their perspective.
Some veterans prefer to meet at the library, but usually crews of two interns travel to the individual’s house to get their story.
“When we interview them we, tell them it is a conversation on video,” Dailey said. “We start from the beginning so it is easy to go in chronological order. After you do a couple, you want to make sure you honor and preserve them. We want a personalized story from the soldier. We don’t want a Hollywood version.”
As the students started experiencing the oral histories first hand, they realized that war heroes are ordinary people who accomplished the extraordinary.
“I had this vision of a veteran being different, that they looked different, like a hero,” Hasik said. “This is not true. They are ordinary men who did extraordinary things. You would never know they flew 50 missions or were in a POW camp, because they don’t wear it.”
The East Texas War and Memory Project demonstrates the importance of collecting the history of these World War II veterans who are passing away and might never get the chance to share what they went through and what they saw, which would mean losing a part of our history.
“We ask them [about their experiences],” Hasik said. “A lot of their children and grandchildren don’t ask. We have allowed them to have a chance to preserve their experience. We go more for quality not quantity. We walk into their homes and we are strangers until we leave the first time and then we are friends and the next time they tell us stories; we try to do at least one follow up to every interview.”
From as far as San Antonio and San Angelo, veterans from all over East Texas have contacted the students of the project. The students have also traveled to three different conferences to present papers and talk about their work.
As the project gets more publicity, more veterans want to get involved, developing the endeavor into an entity that captures the stories of veterans from other conflicts including the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
“We plan to expand and interview vets from other wars such as the Persian Gulf War,” Gruver said. “We will continue to look to capture as many war stories from the individual’s perspective as we can.”