Going beyond the history textbook

It was my turn to come up with the topic for Valley Pages, and I was debating topics in my head that wouldn’t be cheesy or cliche when an idea hit me.

I learned a while ago the Miami Valley Veterans’ Museum held a veterans’ breakfast the first Wednesday of every month and thought, I could talk to them for a Fourth of July-themed Valley.

Which leads me to the breakfast Wednesday. I interviewed several veterans from different eras. On the younger end was Senior Master Sgt. Stephen Griffieth, who was retiring after 20 years of service in the Air Force and had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I noticed that quite a few of the men there were veterans of the Vietnam war, as well the Korean War and, at oldest, World War II vets. My goal was to talk to as many different veterans from as many different wars as possible and ask them a few questions about what it was like when they served — the warfare, the culture in America then, what they remembered good or bad about their military experiences.

In addition to getting a meaningful story, the history nerd in me was absolutely curious to what they’ve lived and how they compared to what history books in school taught me.

I talked to several men. One of them was a Vietnam veteran, so I asked him about how the culture from then to now had changed. He and I talked about how the way service was taught and encouraged then is not taught the same way now, and he shared some memories of Vietnam that were positive, which was a far cry from what the culture and news reports at the time would have me believe.

He was a fun guy to talk, too, I might add.

I also met a veteran who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He talked about how cold it was when they were fighting and that it was one of the worst battles — two-thirds of his men were killed. I asked him if he could describe what it meant to be a veteran in a few sentences.

His response? “I can’t do that. It would take paragraphs to explain that.”

The other World War II veteran and I talked for a long time about how society had changed. It was long talk, but it was also one of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had for an assignment. He shared he had been part of a documentary on World War II, and gave a copy of it to his neighbor for the neighbor’s daughters to watch.

“The kids know about that World War II happened, but they don’t know what it’s about,” he said. “So many kids don’t know our history, while the kids in Europe when I was touring there after the war thank us nonstop.”

As he was talking about the direction the country was going and the changes, I noticed he was tearing up a bit and I found myself resisting the urge to do the same. You couldn’t deny the pride he had as a veteran, the pride he had in his country, and the sadness he felt from the way things changed.

I went back to the newsroom to start working. As I was transcribing and listening to those conversations, I was moved in a way I never experienced before.

I had sat down and talked with living history.

I’m part of the generation that knows war exists, but because of how desensitized many of us (“us” being the 20-something crowd and younger) have become to seeing violence, it doesn’t get a strong reaction. We’ve only known war through television broadcasts and YouTube videos, which leads to a feeling of detachment. We know it’s going on, but it’s “over there” and out of sight, out of mind.

The Vietnam War was was something I had learned about through documentaries in high school, from young adults novels that took place during that time and a couple of books in the “Dear America” series. I remember the basics such as the “domino theory” JFK believed in and the fact that many were opposed to the war.

The Korean War got a paragraph, and World War II was reduced to: Hitler is evil, the Holocaust happened (with a lengthy unit in sixth grade to ensure we knew that), and the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.”

It saddens me to know that many people my age and my eventual children will never know The Greatest Generation, and that many of the veterans I can talk to now will one day be remembered as a blurb in a history textbook only.

A blurb can’t capture the pride, emotion and memory of these men the same way actually talking to them can.

But I’m also grateful I got the opportunity to go beyond the textbook. Thank you to the Miami Valley Veterans Museum for having me out, and thank you to Mitch Fogle, Stephen and Melinda Griffieth, Bob Jacoby, Nick Essinger and Robert Tweed for letting me ask you my questions and for showing me a side of history I could not have known any other way.

Have a Happy Fourth of July, everyone!