Ohioans have a long tradition of military service beginning with the Revolutionary War. Since World War II, American soldiers have served throughout the world – from the beaches of Normandy to the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan plus everywhere in between.
In July, the Ohio Historical Society’s Digital Projects Team, in partnership with the Ohio National Guard, launched an oral history project called In Their Own Words to document the experiences of active duty soldiers, veterans and members of soldiers’ families.
“It is essential to capture soldiers’ perspectives straight from the mouth today because we see fewer written letters and diaries than in previous wars,” says Sgt. Joshua Mann, historian for the Ohio Army National Guard. “Electronic files and e-mails are so easily deleted after reading that most of the personal information and viewpoints are not retained like hard copies. Plus, communications with friends and family are shorter than previous wars because they’re more frequent. Previously, a soldier might have the opportunity to write a letter once a month and would then need to describe everything that happened over that month. Today, they can call or e-mail or even Skype nearly every day, so the conversation becomes ‘this is what happened today.”
In the past, soldiers and their families and friends typically sent letters to one another. These letters were saved and treasured and passed down from generation to generation. Many wartime letters are in archives and part of the historical record. Researchers, students and geneaologists rely on these letters to tell the stories of ordinary people in times of war. Today, since soldiers are able to communicate with telephones, e-mail and social media, which leave little or no record, oral history interviews are an effective way to capture their stories.
To date, interviews have been recorded with 11 active duty service members, 11 veterans and three family members. The interviewees have included two female soldiers. Of the active duty soldiers and veterans, 16 participated in combat. They range in age from 90 to 20 and served in conflicts from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The interviews are about an hour and sometimes touch on emotional subjects. Current service member Tracy Williams opens up about how women are treated in the military. Glenn Harper, who served in the Ohio National Guard, recalls being on duty at Kent State University during anti-war protests on May 4, 1970 that left four students dead and nine wounded. Richard Garcia, who volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam, describes developing a friendship with a young Vietnamese girl. Mari Sunami, daughter of an African American pilot, describes racial discrimination in the 1940s.
About the Project
In Their Own Words was funded by a Library Services Technology Act grant. Grant monies purchased professional-quality lighting and audio equipment; a high-definition, digital video camera; and provided training to interviewers. The equipment and training will be put to good use in expanding the society’s oral history program.
Transcripts of the interviews and copies on DVD will be preserved in the Ohio Historical Society archives. Once the videos have been edited, they are uploaded to the Ohio Memory digital library. Currently ten interviews are available online and more will be posted soon. To see them, visit the Oral History Collection page.