Preserving their stories: Students document, share local veterans’ stories with the Library of Congress

Bri Litton
Bri Litton

“The preservation of veterans’ stories is how we keep veterans’ memories alive long after they're gone,” said Juan Martinez, a student veteran from Bath, Michigan.

That goal was a driving factor for Sandra French, Ph.D., professor of communication. She wanted to have the major project for her Honors class, The Communication of Commemoration, about documenting local veterans’ stories as part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project initiative.

In collaboration with the Military Resource Center, French worked to identify local veterans for her class of 12 students to interview and subsequently send the interviews to the Library of Congress.

“I'm interested in them recognizing that they're contributing to an archive that captures these stories, so they are not lost forever,” French said. “I really want them to gain confidence from this experience – confidence that they are capable, that the training they're receiving at Radford University and in their various majors and disciplines is preparing them to do this kind of work. I want them to know that they're perfectly capable of interviewing a veteran and capturing and documenting that experience before sending it to a prestigious archive, such as the Library of Congress.”

Veterans were identified from either around campus or through familial connections to the students in the course. One of the veterans that contributed his story was Martinez, who was interviewed by Bri Litton, a sophomore from Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Corp. Martinez served in the United States Marine Corps. from 2009 through 2014.

Litton said that the experience was very educational for her, as she does not come from a family with veterans. For Litton, the interview was an opportunity to hear someone’s personal story and learn more about them as a person.

“When you walk into a classroom, you just see students. You get to know some of them personally and connect with them. But, you don’t have a chance to connect with everyone, so you don’t get to know everyone’s backstories. We all come from different backgrounds and storylines. You don’t know what made someone who they are today,” Litton said. “This was a chance to get outside the classroom and learn about what makes someone who they are.”

Bri Litton, left, speaks with Juan Martinez, right.

Bri Litton, left, speaks with Juan Martinez, right.

That opportunity – the chance to share local veterans’ stories – was a driving factor in Litton’s decision to take the course. The course provided experiential learning opportunities and gave her a chance to learn outside of a classroom.

During Litton’s interview with Martinez, she noticed that he was wearing a special bracelet.

“It has these three men's names on it, names of three men that he was very close to and lost in combat. Hearing him talk about that was very significant to me,” Litton said. “You hear stories about war, but if you're not there talking to the person that endured it, then you're separated from that. I saw how his experiences impacted him. That really stuck out to me.”

Laurie Riner of Pilot, Virginia, took the opportunity to interview retired Air Force Maj. James Robinson. Maj. Robinson started his military career in ROTC at Ohio State during the Vietnam War. While a student in ROTC, student protestors threw rocks and other objects at the cadets. Maj. Robinson concluded his career working on Department of Defense contracts for the Pentagon.

Bri Litton, left, speaks with Juan Martinez, right.

Bri Litton, left, speaks with Juan Martinez, right.

Maj. Robinson’s time in the Air Force had a positive impact on him, Riner said.

“He mentioned how broadly his mind was stretched and how positively he was influenced by being able to travel and live in different places in the world and how grateful he was for those experiences,” Riner said. “He also said that he was sad, because of the sacrifices that his wife and that his family had to go through from moving around. I was really interested in the fact that it was an overall wonderful experience. It's a really positive part of the story.”

The interviews conducted by students are also a step in creating a greater appreciation for qualitative research methods.

“We’ve talked a lot about capturing rich, individual stories,” French said. “As part of the Communication of Commemoration course, we’ve also discussed what happened to the memory of a historical event after the firsthand participants pass away. The students are contributing to an archive that preserves these firsthand accounts so they are not lost.”

The Communication of Commemoration is an example of how Radford University faculty offer dynamic teaching pedagogies that enable students to excel academically. These innovative pedagogies expand the University’s student research opportunities, while engaging and enriching the local community.

Dec 9, 2019
Max Esterhuizen