The Public Humanist

Celebrating Veterans Day through the Stories of Those Who Served

Veterans Day parades, ceremonies and speeches are the traditional ways we honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans. Without editorializing about such traditions, I want to suggest an additional means of observing November 11.

Seek out a family member, neighbor or colleague who served in the military and engage that person in a conversation about his (or her) military experience. Ask a question or two. Listen. Ask another question. You may spark the sharing of a story, or get only a few brief answers to your questions. Either way, the act of listening offers you a personal connection to November 11. More importantly, your recognition of the vet's service is a real Veterans Day gift.

Hopefully, you'll hear a story, which can offer you far more insights into military service, war and sacrifice than a parade or speech. And it may provide some unexpected revelations into history and the human condition.

I've worked with more than 100 veterans through the Veterans Education Project, helping them to share their experiences in area classrooms and in public venues. Many remarkable stories come from men and women who are reticent to share. Most often their reticence does not come from a discomfort with their story. More likely they think their experiences don't stack up to those tales from legendary battlegrounds such as Midway, Normandy, Chosin Reservoir, Hue or Falujah.

Ray Elliott, for instance, would not have shared his story unless we had asked and offered encouragement. Ray is an 84 year-old World War 2 veteran from Amherst. He served as an Army engineer surveying and building airfields on Pacific Islands. He never was in combat. His story really wasnt all that interesting, he initially told us.

Not interesting? Ray is an African American who served in the then-segregated U.S. Army. He and others in the all black unit endured overt racism both within the military and off base. In Mississippi he once was chased by a white mob at a bus stop for having the gall to refuse a white man's order to step into the gutter. After all that and more, he shipped to the Pacific to fight for democracy. Ray and many of his comrades joined the "Double V" movement, resolving to achieve a double victory—one over the fascism of Japan and Germany and one over racism within the U.S.A. After helping achieve the first victory overseas, he returned home to continue struggling for the second. Ray went to college, entered a career as a chemist and became an organizer in the NAACP. He now serves as President of that organization's Pioneer Valley chapter.

Anna Russell of Amherst—who unfortunately, recently passed away—is another example of one who with encouragement could tell rapt audiences of her Army service in WW2, in London, under German bombardment, and in Europe. Her stories offered insights into the achievements of those WW2 era women who served in a male-dominated military culture with a very low career ceiling for females. Paul Slater, a WW2 Navy vet who served on a destroyer escort and who lives in Northampton, also has eye-opening stories that are seldom heard. When he joined the Navy at age 18, Paul was a self-described "Jewish kid from Brooklyn who, as with all of his shipmates, had grown up during the Depression." In addition to stories of convoys plying a North Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, he shares his experiences confronting overt discrimination against Jews, and facing the subtler forms of anti-Semitism that inspired the 1947 Oscar-winner for Best Picture, Gentlemens Agreement, starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield.

Can you see the pattern here? Many veterans' stories contain important themes that go far beyond topics of war and combat, along with insights into larger historical, social and political issues. They are, indeed, interesting. Some even may contain material for an Academy Award winning film! The three story examples above all relate to the larger themes of cultural struggle and social change and justice that are the focus of The Seldom Heard Voices of WW2 Oral History Project that VEP recently initiated with the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, with a grant from Mass Humanities. There are many more of these kinds of compelling "non-combat" stories—from veterans of all wars and conflicts, WW2 to Iraq and Afghanistan—waiting to be heard.

And there are many veterans who, with your interest, would choose to share with you if you asked. But some may not, and it is important to respect this choice. It also is important not to impose your own views on a veterans story. Ask questions (as opposed to editorializing) and listen. You may get unforeseen insights from the story. And many vets tell us that they remember events, people and details forgotten for years and even decades, and connect seemingly disparate dots of military experience. I cant believe I never thought of that before they often say of their revelations.

But the door to all the insight and validation in a story wont swing open unless you attempt the conversation with a veteran that I suggested above. Any day would be a good day to try, but what day could be better than this November 11?

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