There seems to be no end to the fascinating details of war experience that you’ve never heard of before. The Battlefield Doc and I started the day at a local VFW Post’s annual Veteran’s Day breakfast where Doc had a book signing. He loves talking to people, telling stories and hearing theirs. I keep telling people they need to write these stories for their families to hold on to, to honor what their veteran has been through and to save these pieces of history – some of them astonishing.
Then we went to the newly-renovated Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in St. Louis and arrived just in time to see a commemorative service on the granite front steps, honoring veterans and explaining the Missing Man table setting there – always moving. In the chill breeze, Doc did well, even under the deafening 3-volley salute, which made me jump at each sharp crack. Then a woman from the French Society eloquently spoke to thank Americans for their sacrifice in coming to the aid of France, far away and “for strangers, for people whose language they could not understand.”
Our museum carries some fascinating history from war times. Likewise, our veterans carry fascinating history from their times. Their families have fascinating histories, too—how did their lives change while their husbands, fathers, wives, or mothers were away? History books hold the macro details, but only personal histories share the small details of daily lives and concerns – the stuff most of us can relate to, and the stuff we’d be most curious about if we only stopped to think about it.
Not everyone will naturally tell their stories. Your veteran may think you don’t care to know, or that you can’t possibly understand so why talk about it. If you show interest, you never know what might happen—you might unleash a torrent. You might help someone feel good about themselves, to remember a great friendship or fascinating experience, or perhaps release their pain. With combat veterans, take whatever stories will come and don’t push as you would not want to traumatize them.
Many combat veterans have stories of fun times and camaraderie, and they can talk around the horrors they experienced, to instead speak on “safe” topics like boot camp and training, food, living on a ship or submarine, being in a tank, down times and R&R, USO shows, the countries they were in and the civilian people they met, being with soldiers from another country. Despite being in combat the entire time he was in Korea, Doc has interesting “safe” stories about the Korean people and countryside, the weather, the Turkish unit next to his, his duties during lulls in fighting, the one USO show he could go to, their intepreters’ skills, and how tough the “commandos” were.
Get the stories in whatever form you can – before it’s too late! Saying “thank you for your service” is nice, but you can really show you care and have respect for their service by asking questions.