In 1999 I got the idea to do an oral history interview project with Vietnam Veterans. Starting this project was very personal for me: I wanted to understand the experiences of veterans in general, but I also saw an opportunity to get to know my father better and possibly understand the demons that he chose for many years to fight alone and in silence. One lesson that I learned right away was that veterans neither trust nor talk to outsiders, and in the beginning I was an outsider. I learned this valuable lesson when I went to the Greenville Veterans Outreach Center to talk with a group of Vietnam veterans about my interest in their war-time experiences. Even though I was invited by the group leader, Dr. Harold McMillion, I did not feel very welcomed. The veterans told me that they had no intentions of talking to me about their experiences and were suspicious about why I wanted to hear their stories. With my hopes about to disappear, a World War II veteran spoke up and encouraged the Vietnam veterans to talk about their experiences while they still could. He was the only one still alive from his unit, and he wished someone would record his story and those of other World War II veterans before it was too late. One Vietnam veteran responded, “I don’t have anything to say to her!” I left the meeting very disappoointed, with a crumbling project in hand. Harold assured me that the veterans had heard me and that the project would go on.
The experience showed me that before I could conduct any interviews, I needed to earn the trust of the veterans and show them that I was sincerely interested in their experiences. The North Carolina Humanities Council grant made possible the hiring of project staff, and we decided to sponsor a series of public oral history programs, mediated by Harold, that we hoped would provide a comfortable atmosphere for veterans to share some of their experiences with each other, their families, and the general public. Harold, who became a bright star in this project, worked his magic and convinced several veterans to sign up. We also created a traveling exhibit from diaries, photographs, books, maps and articles. From February to November of 2000, at least forty Vietnam Veterans from eastern North Carolina, including my father and uncle, participated as keynote speakers, panelists, or audience members at four community forums. The men talked and shared, laughed and cried. The most overwhelming response was at the end of each forum, when the veterans would linger for hours and talk informally with each other about their experiences in Vietnam. They were willing to start the healing process, but it had to include each other. Until the forums, some families of veterans did not understand the depths of the wounds left by the war.
In 2001, we started interviewing veterans. The project staff worked tirelessly to record stories of those willing to participate and who felt comfortable being a part of our project. We initially recorded approximately 25 oral history interviews with Vietnam Veterans. As time passed and we collaborated with the Raleigh Veterans Outreach Center, we continued to have community forums and became a part of the North Carolina Humanities Council's Road Scholar Program. We often receive invitations to speak at various places across North Carolina. As the veterans became more comfortable telling their stories and sharing their experiences, the invitations became more frequent. These projects have been ongoing for thirteen years because they tapped a community that was also in search of something, a lost brotherhood that had been left behind in Vietnam and other wars. Most of the veterans participating today have been involved since the beginning. The success of the projects are measured not only by the stories recorded but even more by improvements in the quality of life of the veterans and their families.
Breaking the Silence: The Unspoken Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans