More than 250 veteran interviews are now available to the public through Eastern Kentucky University’s William H. Berge Oral History Center. This collection will continue to grow as hundreds of students facilitate audio-recorded interviews with veterans each year in EKU’s Introduction to Veterans Studies Course (VTS 200).
The course is part of EKU’s Veterans Studies (VTS) program – the nation’s first academic program designed to teach students about the unique identities, cultures and experiences of members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Students taking VTS 200 either on campus in Richmond, Kentucky, or online, go out in their communities and interview veterans – listening to their unique stories and perspectives. In completing these recordings, students engage in dialogue with veterans then share those narratives, helping to bridge the divide between military and civilian cultures.
“Each veteran is unique,” said Dr. Travis Martin, creator of the Veterans Studies program and director of EKU’s soon-to-be-established Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies. “And the consensus seems to be – among researchers and veterans alike – that the best way to learn about veterans is to listen to what they have to say.”
Martin, a two-time veteran of the Iraq War, said many students claim the veteran interview project is among their most rewarding college experiences. Most students who enroll in the course have family members who served in the military, VTS Instructor Peter Berres noted, but very few of them had ever engaged in conversations with their family members about their service.
Berres initiated the inclusion of the interview assignment as part of the course curriculum. A Vietnam veteran, he and his father, a 35-year veteran of military service, had been previously interviewed for the University of Kentucky Oral History Program. He said they both “appreciated an opportunity to reflect on their experiences, organize their thoughts, feelings and give voice to what had been, up-to-that point, mostly silence within us.” Upon coming to EKU and learning about the Berge Oral History Center, he decided to incorporate the interview project as a non-lecture learning experience for students.
“A course on veterans must have veteran’s voices,” Berres said. “These interviews represent the first opportunity to ‘tell their story,’” and for most, “It is an opportunity to immortalize their experience for future family members to learn about them.”
Instructor Liz Barrs teaches the online VTS 200 course, expanding the reach of the project nationally and even internationally.
“We not only get the stories of Kentucky veterans, but we get to bring in veterans’ stories from all over the country,” Barrs said.
Barrs served 21 years as an army intelligence officer in multiple combat tours, including Desert Storm and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also served two years on the National Security Council staff in the White House Situation Room.
Now, as a doctoral candidate in history, she sees value in the veterans interview project, not only because it allows students to better understand veteran’s experiences, but also because it creates primary historical documents and sources. “It shows our students how historical memory is created,” she said. “It brings history alive for them.”
The recorded interviews provide diverse and varied viewpoints of military service and cover a range of topics, including boot camp, deployment, loss, life after service, race relations and perspectives from women veterans.
“What’s great about it, is not only those exciting stories of wartime veterans, but also just those really interesting stories of military experience, and how that experience changes a young person – how their world, their identity and their worldview changes just from peacetime service,” Barrs said.
Students ask veterans questions such as, where did your career take you after the service, how did military experience influence your life, and what life skills did you learn through your military experience? Research throughout the course helps students decide what questions to ask, Martin said, and they also learn how to respectfully ask their questions.
“The real growth isn’t something we teach,” Martin continued. “It comes when the student sits down across from a veteran, listens to their story, and realizes that what they are doing is both worthwhile and their responsibility. Put simply, it is our shared responsibility to listen.”
The Berge Oral History Center currently houses a collection of 4,300 recorded interviews, including the more than 250 veterans interviews.
“These stories exemplify not only what the VTS program wants to see but what the Berge Center wants to see come out of oral history practices of talking with people,” said Neil Kasiak, oral historian for the Berge Center. Kasiak views the collection as providing service learning opportunities for students, but also as a means for both veterans and citizens to better understand military life and service.
To explore the collection of veteran interviews, visit oralhistory.eku.edu. Search “veterans” in the search bar at the top of the page, then select “Veterans Studies Project” to view the full collection. New veterans interviews are added after the completion of each semester. The Berge Center would also like to encourage families to consider conducting their own interviews. For details on conducting interviews, or for more information on the Veterans Studies or other Berge Center projects, please contact EKU Oral Historian Neil Kasiak at firstname.lastname@example.org or 859-622-2820.
Veterans Studies at EKU offers on-campus and online students the opportunity to pursue a minor, university-level certificate, or associate of general studies concentration. The program helps student veterans contextualize their service. It equips non-veteran students with the interdisciplinary knowledge needed to understand veterans’ identities, cultures and experiences. Veterans Studies graduates leave EKU prepared to live, work alongside, and serve veterans in future careers and home communities. Visit vetstudies.eku.edu to learn more.