Thursday, November 11, 2004

Honoring our men and women in service

Today is the traditional Veterans Day. At the school where I teach, this has always been a huge remembrance, even prior to 9/11. Any veteran in the community is invited to attend a special observation, during which the students perform songs written especially by our music teacher, poetry is read and thanks are given to those in attendance for their service. The program is timed so that any veterans who wish to have lunch may stay. Children are assigned to guide them through the lunch line, to serve them by bringing things to their tables, and the entire lunchroom is set up to look like a huge restaurant. We're encouraged to wear red, white and blue. It's quite a different scene from most days in the grade school lunchroom, as the kids are quiet and respectful. Why? The vets are encouraged to share their stories with the kids, and the kids have been coached to draw these out. As with any subject, a story will capture our attention like nothing else, but never more than when our veterans share the stories they have.

This is becoming more and more important for many reasons. Unfortunately, as a nation we find ourselves in these conflicts far too often. It's something we don't care to discuss, but often find ourselves in verbal conflict when we do choose to discuss it. Yet ask any vet about his or her service, and though they won't likely share the ugly stuff, they have many great stories about the places they've been and the unique experiences they've had, the friendships they've formed with those in their unit, and perhaps the stories of cross cultural contact into which wartime placed them.

We tend to avoid the stories they might have to share. War is ugly, and the presence of veterans often brings that to the forefront. I don't think there's a vet around who doesn't agree with that point of view, but they still have stories to share. There is a movie that came out several years ago, based on a real event during World War I. The movie is called "Midnight Clear," and it retells the story of German and US soldiers, facing each other during the height of a nasty winter, deciding to call their own truce, since support was not reaching either side, and holding an observance of Christmas in an abandoned house. The movie was based on a story that was told by one of those soldiers. It is a truly moving tale, and one that might have been lost had that soldier not shared it with someone.

About five years ago, a young man attending one of the two high schools in the district where I teach chose to do an oral history project to enter into competition for National History Day. He wanted to interview as many veterans in the LaCrosse area as possible, saving their stories for posterity. He started early in the school year, gathering names of potential interviewees from various organizations, such as the VFW as well as simply asking around. He gathered nearly 70 names, which included vets from all armed conflicts back to WWI. By the time he was finishing his work in the spring, about 1/3 of the contacts had either died or had medical complications due to aging that made it impossible for this young man to gather their stories.

The young man still went on with his project in the National History Day competition, and I believe he competed at the national level. His comments in an article in the LaCrosse Tribune reflected upon the need to save these stories for our national history before it's too late. As a result of his work, our US Congressman, Ron Kind, managed to put forward a bill that provided monies to gather these oral histories.

I'd encourage anyone reading this to honor the veterans you know by asking them to share their stories--then retell them yourself, keeping this important history of ours alive.

(For more information about the story of the Christmas Truce, here is a great link to Aaron Shepard's storytelling website. He has created a version of this story for telling, and includes some interesting background information).
(And for information straight from the Congressman himself about the Veterans History Project, check this link).


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