Veterans Oral History project captures the stories of UO student veterans

June 11, 2013 - 9:55pm

“I thought we were doing good over there, I thought we were rebuilding the country. But the longer I was over there, I was like, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ ”

- Josh Yates, Marine Corps sergeant, 2003–9

Every year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. veterans die without having fully told their stories, taking with them rich experiences of military service that haven’t been formally preserved. For Sgt. Josh Yates, that’s a tragedy.

Yates, 27, who served six years in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and Japan, has a deep respect for history. He’s majoring in this field as an undergraduate at the UO, and it’s possible he’ll someday be at the head of a classroom himself, teaching history at a university.

History, according to Yates, is a precious resource and a malleable thing—it can be changed by whoever is writing it. That’s why he jumped at the chance to participate in the Veterans Oral History Project, a program to record the military service of UO students.

“People don’t realize, history is not a ‘was,’ it’s an ‘is’—it’s a living thing and people can distort it,” Yates said. “How much would I give to have my record known for future generations to get an accurate account of history?”

Established in 2012, the Veterans Oral History Project is a repository of interviews of veterans and active duty servicemen and women from the University of Oregon.

Interviews are conducted, recorded and transcribed by undergraduate students enrolled in a class that supports the project. The interviews are permanently housed in the archive at Knight Library and audiofiles and full transcripts are available on the library’s website; the goal of the project is to have a transcription and audiofile for each subject, which provides the public with two entry points for reviewing material.

Alex Dracobly, a senior instructor who teaches military history, created the project to address what he saw as a glaring absence of material documenting the military service of 300 to 500 former and current UO students in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have been in the midst of one of the longest ongoing wars in the history of this country,” Dracobly said. “Little was being done to document the experiences of a substantial part of the university community.”

The project, which received startup funding from the Tom and Carol Williams Fund for Undergraduate Education and other sources, does more than capture the experiences of veterans, however. It also introduces students to the methods and practice of oral history and provides the public with a valuable collection of oral histories.

Cpl. Henry Huynh, who served four years in Afghanistan and Iraq, said talking about his service with a fellow veteran has put him in the right frame of mind for school.

Those who haven’t served always ask the same question: “Did you kill anybody?” But in the oral history project, veterans are often interviewed by other veterans; Huynh, for example, was interviewed by Yates.

“If I’d been interviewed by a nonvet, maybe I would have held back on certain details,” said Huynh, 24, who is pursuing an undergraduate business degree. “But the interviewer knows the same b.s. and understands, so I didn’t feel stupid. It put me in a comfort zone.”

During his interview, he described in detail a 15- to 30-minute firefight and the rush of adrenaline he felt as he fired his rifle at the enemy—the tunnel vision, the euphoria of putting into action the years of training. Huynh hadn’t talked much about his service, prior to the oral history project.

“I think (the oral history project) is a good experience, especially for people who just got out, to get over their anxiety— they’re not alone,” Huynh said. Then he laughed: “It’s like a therapy session, I guess.”

Students say that it can take 10 or more hours of editing to produce a transcript for a two-hour interview, and difficult decisions must be made about what to cut and what to keep.

One of the most sensitive components of the course is the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dracobly retains an expert to teach the students how to interview veterans without triggering a painful memory.

“The project really puts a human face on people in the military,” history major James Croft said. “These are real people who have real thoughts and real feelings about what they’re doing.”

- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications, from an article that originally appeared in Cascade, the alumni magazine of the UO College of Arts and Sciences