Nearly 100 people attended a workshop hosted by the Alaska Veterans Museum (AVM) and led by the Veterans History Project (VHP) and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Attendees learned techniques for collecting oral histories from Alaska’s veterans and how to submit them to VHP, within the Library of Congress, to ensure the stories are preserved for future generations.
Col. (ret) Suellyn Novak serves as the president and director for AVM, which is headquartered in Anchorage. AVM’s mission is to educate, honor and inspire by preserving artifacts and stories from Alaskan veterans. AVM has spearheaded numerous oral history efforts for this reason. The workshop fine-tuned those efforts and provided a clear avenue for those stories to be preserved at the Library of Congress.
Novak wants to see people volunteer with the museum to honor local veterans by preserving their stories through numerous exhibits and collecting their oral histories. She especially hopes people will volunteer as oral history takers, emphasizing the urgency in some cases.
Novak says, “The sad part is that in the case of the World War Two and Korean War vets we are losing so many of them every day now and those stories are being lost forever. Our museum has done a fantastic job of targeting World War Two and Korean War vets, not that we’re short-circuiting the others, but because we’re losing them so fast they [veterans’ stories] have to be captured before it’s over.”
Numerous experts traveled across the country to speak with attendees on Friday. Karen Lloyd, VHP’s director and a retired Army aviation colonel, traveled to Alaska to offer her insights at the workshop.
She briefly toured the state before Friday’s workshop, meeting with Congressman Don Young’s and Senator Murkowski’s teams. Both public servants have been very supportive of preserving veterans’ stories, an issue that strikes close to home for Lloyd.
Lloyd’s husband refused to discuss his stories from Vietnam until he visited Omaha Beach, Normandy a few years ago. He decided after that sobering experience to tell his story. Unfortunately, he passed away from a heart attack a few days later.
Lloyd says, “I feel that it is my job to reach out across the U.S. and make sure that we get as many veteran stories as we possibly can who are comfortable [with sharing their stories]. We do not want those voices to be lost.”
To emphasize the project’s importance, she pointed out that the VHP has three interviews from Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor.
Without those interviews Hacksaw Ridge, a 2016 film featuring Doss’ story that starred Andrew Garfield, could not have been made.
“The key is if he [Doss] hadn’t decided to tell his story, they could not have made the movie,” Lloyd says. “That is what is so important about the workshops that we give, the volunteers reaching out to spend their time to talk and really listen to the veterans in their lives.”
Making stories like Doss’ accessible to all generations creates more relatability to people who experienced history’s biggest moments. Lloyd spoke with Bill Noomah of Homer, AK, who teaches 5th grade. Instead of relying solely on textbooks to teach history, he used VHP resources and brought World War Two to life for his students by using material from Tracy Sugarman’s collection.
Sugarman drove a landing support ship during D-Day in 1944. He also drew pictures to relieve stress and wrote romantic letters to his wife. The students connected with Sugarman on an emotional level while learning about historical events, making history more poignant.
Barbara W. Sommer led the seminar and shared her insights about the best method for approaching, interviewing, and preserving the histories of Alaskan veterans. Her expertise in oral histories reaches back to the 1970s and she has authored and co-authored numerous books (i.e., The Oral History Manual, The American Indian Oral History Manual).
Elizabeth “Betsy” Gordon, Project Manager for the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian, offered her knowledge as well. She currently manages a project to add a memorial on the National Mall honoring Native American veterans and their families slated to be finished in the year 2020. The design for the memorial will be selected by a competition that commences on Veteran’s Day.
Gordon says, “Today is a training seminar so the people here will be able to go out into their community and take oral histories. It’s a seed that I hope grows and grows into a forest of oral histories.”
Brad Schmitz, an event coordinator for the workshop, felt pleased that the high turnout for the event forced AVM to offer two sessions. Nearly half of the attendees being middle school and high school students served as a special source of pride.
Schmitz encourages people who were unable to attend the workshop, but who want to collect veteran stories for the Library of Congress, to download the field kit from VHP’s website (www.loc.gov/vets). He urges people to follow Lloyd’s advice and pick at least one veteran in their lives and interview him/her.
“It’s a fair amount of paperwork and you might have to read a book about World War II but it’s definitely well worth it to let someone else shine,” Schmitz says. “It’s a real official way to tell their [veterans’] stories and to make sure they are saved for generations to come.”
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker