History is one thing. Stories are another.
Most United States citizens know the major strokes of the world wars from their history books, of the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and of the ongoing battles in the Middle East.
But personal stories — from people with lived experience in military conflicts — are rarely easy to sum up with a single narrative. They, like the men and women who serve in the military, are vast and diverse, encompassing a broad range of perspectives on what it means to serve your country and what it means to be a patriot.
“It’s a story that needs to be told. None of the children I talk to totally understand what Vietnam was. I’m not sure if I do,” Fred Hudgin, a Southwest Washington veteran who fought in Vietnam, said of his own experiences. “Maybe if we learn from it, we can stop doing this.”
Hudgin was one of about 35 veterans who attended an event hosted by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler on Friday morning as part of the Veterans History Project, an attempt to record spoken interviews with as many individual service members as possible to keep in the Library of Congress.
The Republican congresswoman from Battle Ground told the group gathered at the Fort Vancouver Artillery Barracks that by recording their stories, the veterans were “making sure they were preserved for the next generation.”
“Everybody’s going to get their chance, and I’m sure we’re going to get a very broad perspective in terms of your experiences. And that’s exactly what we want. There are no right answers, there are no wrong answers. This is your story, and we want your story preserved,” Herrera Beutler said.
Before the veterans broke off for their individual interviews, she used a microphone to interview John “Jack” Hooghkirk, a signalman second class with the U.S. Navy during World War II.
The 96-year-old veteran and Vancouver resident recalled his experience serving aboard a ship sent to Alaska in 1944 by the Department of the Interior, part of the earliest oil expeditions in the northernmost state. The ship got stuck in the ice and was marooned for eight days, Hooghkirk said.
He never saw any violence, and he enjoyed his service, he said. His time in the Navy, which he enlisted in voluntarily, also launched him into the next phase of his life, helping him go back to college on the GI Bill, raise 11 children with his wife, and own a few pieces of property.
He recounted the time period fondly, remembering how World War II acted as a unifying force across the United States. That was an attitude that permeated both military and civilian life, he said.
“It made the country very cohesive. Everybody was singing off the same hymn book,” Hooghkirk told the congresswoman.
His own patriotism ran deep, he added.
“It made me appreciate my country. We were very patriotic in those days,” Hooghkirk said. “It’s changed today, considerably. I don’t think we feel this way anymore.”
The Veterans History Project
Friday’s event marked the third time Herrera Beutler’s office held a formal gathering to record stories for the Veterans History Project, said spokeswoman Angie Riesterer.
Hooghkirk was selected as the congresswoman’s interview subject because of his status as a World War II veteran, a dwindling group of people.
“The Library of Congress wants to prioritize World War II vets’ interviews before they pass on,” Riesterer wrote in a message. “Jack was the first World War II veteran who talked to our office about sharing his story for this event, so we thought he’d be great to kick it off.”
The Veterans History Project started in 2000. The idea is to collect, preserve, and make accessible personal accounts of servicemembers so that future generations can hear firsthand the realities of war.
Veterans can contribute oral histories, as they did Friday; they can contribute written accounts like journals or letters, or printed materials like photographs, maps or artwork.
Anyone who served in any military conflict and discharged under conditions other than “dishonorable” are eligible to participate. Members of Gold Star families, or families who lost someone while he or she was serving in the military as a result of that service, are also eligible.
To find out more about the project or to contribute, visit www.loc.gov/vets/.