Saving Private Ryan inspired Brad Schmitz to plant a tree to honor veterans in 2001.
However, after visiting a gravesite in Holland for 8000 U.S. servicemen who gave their lives in World War Two, he wanted to do more.
One particular grave from his home state of Idaho, Private Herbert Ronk, stood out to Schmitz. Research and inquiries provided no further information about Ronk.
“I’ve asked myself over the years of who I would call my hero,” Schmitz said. “One is Captain Miller [played by Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan]. Everyone loves Captain Miller. But it’s Herbert Ronk, it’s this private who died thirty years before I was born, who’s the real hero. He’s a man I never knew, but he’s this legend in my mind and in my heart because of what he stood for.”
Schmitz’s grandfather served as a Marine in World War One. Unfortunately, his grandfather’s unique perspective on historic events is also lost because they were not preserved.
Keenly feeling that loss, and desiring to honor veterans who served this country, Schmitz has been involved with honoring veterans and collecting their oral histories for 16 years.
His work has revealed unique perceptions on turbulent events, such as Jon Miller’s, who served as a pilot in World War Two and who flew important decision makers around Europe throughout the war.
To equip others to preserve oral histories, Schmitz is helping organize a seminar to train volunteers to collect stories from veterans. The event will be led by the Veteran’s History Project (VHP), from the U.S. Library of Congress and by the National Museum for the American Indian from the Smithsonian Institute.
The VHP strives to capture the stories of U.S. veterans who served in wartime.
Created with bipartisan support in 2000, the VHP seeks to “collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of American wartime veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”
To accomplish this, the VHP depends on volunteers to collect the stories of veterans in their community. With over 70,000 veterans living in Alaska, this seems an obvious place to collect veteran stories.
Stories gathered from Alaskan veterans by volunteers are sent to the VHP and then to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Schmitz is organizing the seminar along with the Alaska Veterans Museum (AVM) in Anchorage. Copies of stories collected through the VHP are also sent to the AVM to join their extensive oral history library.
Schmitz brings a wealth of experience in collecting veterans’ stories through the VHP, having spearheaded programs in New Hampshire, Idaho, and now Alaska.
Influenced by his time as a social worker for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, he believes that collecting family history is holy work. Projects like these enable intergenerational discussions and empower older generations to impart wisdom. It is a great way to honor family members or members of the community.
“That’s really powerful stuff,” Schmitz added, “especially when you put it on camera and you know it’s going to be preserved for generations to come. That veteran’s story is going to be part of their family history for generations because of how it’s being preserved.”
While benefiting the community by increasing a sense of appreciation for veteran’s service, the process of telling their stories can be difficult, according to Colonel (ret) Suellyn Novak, president and executive director of AVM. Many veterans express an unwillingness to relive traumatic events, having gone to great lengths at times to put them behind them.
However, Novak, who has collected dozens of stories, says many times she will finish interviewing a veteran, and he/she will express gratitude for giving an outlet to discuss events that are often difficult to ponder, let alone discuss.
Novak says, “I don’t know how many times when I finish with an interview [with a veteran], both of us are absolutely wrung out and the person will look at me and say, ‘I never told anyone that story before. You know, I do feel better. Thank you for opening that.’”
The mission is an important one, says Novak. Because so few people serve in the military, this project provides civilians the ability to see war through a witness’s eyes and to understand the sacrifices veterans make.
“We all have our stories whether we’re veterans or not,” Novak says. “But the thing is that people who don’t have veterans in their family don’t understand the military and this is the only way for them to learn.”
In addition to collecting oral histories, the AVM has an impressive collection of exhibits and artifacts.
VHP is one of many organizations with which the AVM has collaborated. It also serves as a resource for many documentaries and historians conducting research.
The seminar will instruct volunteers about how to contact veterans, conduct the interviews, collect photographs and journals and send the finished interviews to the Library of Congress. Attendees will be provided with a step-by-step field kit.
Individuals, in grades 10 or higher, who wish to preserve the stories of veterans are highly encouraged to attend.
Organizations, professional associations, places of worship, retirement communities, veterans, Scout troops, those interested in joining the military, and friends and family of veterans are also encouraged to contribute.
The seminar will be held on October 20, 1:30-4:30 pm, at the Alaska Veteran’s Museum on 333 W. 4th Ave, Suite 227. Because the room will accommodate only 60 participants, attendees are highly encouraged to RSVP early at alasakaveterans.org/vhp.
Schmitz encourages everyone capable of attending to do so because the seminar will be taught by representatives from VHP, saying that “They can draw experience from people from all over the country…they can give great suggestions on how we can do it [collect veterans’ stories] better.”
Jamin Goecker is visiting family and making friends in Alaska before commissioning with the military. He holds a graduate degree in International Affairs from Texas A&M University. When not hiking, fishing or working out, he is editing his manuscript for a novel. To reach Jamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org.