It was 101 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that an armistice ended fighting in World War I.
That agreement – and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles months later – capped what had become commonly known as the “war to end all wars.”
We know today, of course, that the war did not live up to that moniker. It instead became the first chapter in a century filled with the most widespread and devastating conflict this world has ever known.
American service members have been at the front lines of so many of those conflicts, putting their lives on the live in defense of democracy and for the freedom of people around the globe. In the decades since 1918, Nov. 11 – originally known as Armistice Day, and now as Veterans Day – has become an occasion on which we collectively honor and reflect upon their service.
Yet the passage of time has also brought the emergence of a troubling disconnect between the public and military – a lost sense of shared sacrifice that defined earlier conflicts. With our armed forces composed entirely of volunteers, certain segments of our society have become almost entirely removed from the nature of that service.
In that light, the value of the Veterans History Project – an initiative of the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress, which celebrated the start of its 20th anniversary Monday at the Cranston Public Library – becomes abundantly clear.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden, state Veterans Affairs Director Kasim Yarn and others took part in Monday’s event, calling on more Rhode Islanders to take part in the initiative as part of its mission to capture and preserve the first-person accounts of men and women who have served in uniform. Gold Star Families are also invited to take part in the project, carrying on the legacy of those who have given their lives in the nation’s defense.
The Veterans History Project provides a unique and vital resource to researchers, students, families and others – a chance to hear directly from veterans, in their own words, about their time in the military and experiences on the battlefield.
Reed spoke of recently hearing a man in his mid 90s recall landing on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion in 1944. The man was a 19-year-old Coast Guardsman at the time.
“That’s the kind of story that has to be told, not through some kind of abstract, but first person … That’s what we’re trying to capture,” the senator said.
The benefits go beyond enhancing the historical record. The project encourages any member of the community to become an interviewer and provides helpful guidelines for conducting an interview. The process is simple and can be done by anyone, anywhere. And as Hayden noted, all one needs to conduct an interview is a simple microphone or camera – both of which many people now carry in their pocket as part of their cell phone.
More importantly, for some veterans, the experience of being interviewed for the project can be extremely cathartic. It may be the first time they’ve spoken about a difficult or traumatic experience. It also demonstrates the value others place on their service – that their story matters and is part of a much larger tapestry.
Yarn perhaps put it best when he spoke of the importance the Veterans History Project plays in laying a foundation for future generations – one that will inform Americans about the realities of the military experience, of just how much others have given to make the world a safer and better place.
“The words that you provide through your testimony, through your story, will transcend time,” he told the veterans in attendance.
The Veterans History Project’s archives, and full information about how to participate, can be found at loc.gov/vets. As we prepare to observe Veterans Day, we urge Rhode Island’s veterans, and those who know and love them, to join the effort.