They are the proud few among us who answered the call to serve their country: classmates, colleagues, neighbors, relatives, and friends, who risked their lives to ensure freedoms for their fellow Americans.
These veterans’ sacrifices must always be remembered. And now they will be, thanks to several forward-thinking Rutgers University–Camden students and faculty conducting a campus-based Veterans History Project.
The initiative, which is sponsored by the Library of Congress, consists of recording biographical, service, and combat information for veterans who served in combat theaters from World War II to the present day. The recorded accounts will be submitted en masse to the Library of Congress, where they will be accessible via an online database for future generations to come.
“Fifty years from now, someone could log onto the database and hear firsthand what their grandfather or grandmother had gone through,” says Sgt. Josh Piccoli, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and a senior psychology major, who arranges and videotapes the segments. “It will be an invaluable educational resource for anyone learning about history.”
Piccoli’s classmate Alicia Silverman echoed the sentiment, calling it a well-deserved tribute to these men and women who “put their lives on the line.” “Now their voices will be heard forever,” says Silverman, a senior criminal justice major, who interviews veterans for the project.
The students’ professor, Ken Hohing, had introduced the idea of conducting the history project as part of their Art for Military Vets course. As Hohing explains, his primary interest was addressing what he perceives as a common misperception of veterans among those who don’t have friends or family who have served in the military. “Partly because of all the attention that has been given to post-traumatic stress disorder, there is this stigma that veterans must have emotional issues,” says Hohing, who served in the Air Force from 1973 to 1977. “I wanted to be a part of a program that helps people understand that these veterans should be looked at as heroes.”
The students jumped at the chance to give veterans an opportunity to tell their stories. They began the process of collecting, documenting, and preserving the veterans’ personal accounts in fall 2013. And when the class ended, the camera kept rolling.
Piccoli and Silverman now continue to invite any veterans both on and off campus to be interviewed. The Office of Veterans Affairs at Rutgers–Camden, under the direction of Fred Davis, has been instrumental in helping to arrange interviews. “We started recording and it blossomed from there,” says Piccoli, secretary of the Student Veterans group at Rutgers–Camden.
The interviews typically last about a half hour, with Silverman asking the veterans a standard list of 50 questions inquiring about their experiences from deployment to the present day. If veterans feel uncomfortable answering a certain question, they simply move on to the next one.
According to Silverman and Piccoli, some veterans are eager to share their experiences, while others are more reluctant, not wanting to sound boastful or believing that their service doesn’t warrant recognition. “But once they see the questions, they realize that they are just sharing their own story, and it puts them more at ease,” says Piccoli, a resident of Berlin who served in the Marines from 1999 to 2006. “It makes them proud. They say, ‘Wow, I did accomplish something.’”
Silverman notes that the interviews have elicited a wide range of responses and experiences. She personally enjoys seeing how unique each veteran is as they share their stories and opinions, including why they chose to serve their country and what they gained from the experience. She has found it fascinating to learn that many servicemen and women choose to serve in a particular branch that runs in the family. “If their grandfather was a Marine, they want to be a Marine,” says Silverman, a resident of Maple Shade.
To date, the students have interviewed 11 veterans thus far, including an increasing number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As the pair eyes graduation this May, they hope that other students will now pick up the mantle and continue the project.
“We need to give back to these veterans who have given so much of themselves,” says Piccoli. “It’s important for them to have this opportunity.”
Veterans interested in participating in the project can e-mail Piccoli at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details on the Veterans History Project, visit loc.gov/vets/about.html.