Veterans’ memories gain place in national archives

Staff Writer

Behind each war story in the media are the men and women who lived it before it was news; for them, it was reality. Iraq War veteran Justin Sasso, of Holmdel, hopes that adding his oral history to the Library of Congress’Veterans History Projectwill help restore that forgotten empathy.

Sasso, along with Danielle Peloquin, of South Brunswick, a Vietnam War veteran, and several other veterans joined U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, on Jan. 31 to encourage New Jersey’s veterans to add their stories to the Veterans History Project.

“It is a duty we have to preserve the stories of veterans, regardless of which war. Even if they didn’t serve in the war, but volunteered or served in the reserve or otherwise, they are owed a debt of gratitude from us,” said Lautenberg, who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II.

According to Lautenberg, the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project has recorded 70,000 oral histories, including those of 1,200 New Jerseyans.

After the press conference, Lautenberg’s office recorded interviews with five veterans, including Sasso and Peloquin, to add to the archive.

Through the Veterans History Project, anyone who conducts an interview with an American veteran can have that interview and related materials archived in the Library of Congress.

“Itmeans something to know what it was like to be in the service. Why were you there? That’s the big question. Tell your story, even if it seems old hat to you,” Lautenberg told his fellow veterans, encouraging themto participate in the project. “For some people, it’s not easy to tell your story. There were a lot of very unpleasant moments, moments of sacrifice, moments of tears, moments of questioning, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

For Sasso, a veteran of a contemporary and ongoing conflict, oral histories humanize a war told mostly through pundits and news blurbs.

“Things get glossed over because there is so much stuff that the news covers, especially in the 24-hour news cycle. They gloss over stuff so quickly,” Sasso said.

If there is a roadside bombing, the news mentions the event and the number of casualties and then moves on, he said.

“With an oral history, somebody that was actually there can say, ‘Yeah, there was a roadside bombing. This is how I felt, this is what I saw, these are the friends of mine that were injured or were killed.’ It adds a human element to it, rather than just a talking point on the news.”

The oral histories, Sasso said, also add depth to the understanding of history.

“It’s easy to read something in a history book or to see it on TV and get an overall idea of what happened,” he said, “but the dynamic of the emotions and the perspective of the people that are actually there, how they feel, how they think, gives more depth to the history, and it makes it more meaningful when something has first-person perspective.”

Sasso said projects like the Veterans History Project remind the public of the struggles and sacrifices of those serving abroad.

“Nowadays, this stuff is in our face 24/7, and people do become desensitized to it. People forget that Iraq is even going on anymore; even Afghanistan is long forgotten. You hear a blurb about it, and people say, ‘It’s horrible. I can’t believe we’re still there,’ but it’s a talking point that’s forgotten as soon as the next story comes on,” Sasso said.

Sasso served as anArmy Blackhawk helicopter pilot from 1998 to 2008 and served two tours in Iraq.

He is currently studying political science part-time at Rutgers while piloting full-time for a corporate helicopter company.

Douglas Greenberg, executive dean of the School ofArts and Sciences and a historian, stressed the importance of preserving these invaluable historical accounts.

“These interviews and the interviews that will be conducted by the Library of Congress are an essential source for understanding the past,” he said. “We live in the first generation in the history of the world to be able to record, as we have done, the memories of veterans of our military.

“The obligation to care for these materials, to preserve them and to make them available for scholarship and for other reasons is extremely important,” he said.

All oral history projects, whether conducted by Rutgers or the Library of Congress, Greenberg said, share in their storytelling.

“Historians ‘pretty-up’ these stories, but at the end of the day, when historians write about the past, they are telling stories, telling stories about the experiences of ordinary men and women. … It’s those stories that make meaning out of the past,” he said.

The Veterans History Project extends work that Rutgers has been doing since 1994 with its own oral history archive, he said.

According to Rutgers University President Richard McCormick, firsthand accounts help Americans appreciate the magnitude of entering a conflict.

“Perhaps most important in connection with our military,” McCormick said, “it helps us to understand the gravity of the decision to bring troops into battle. When we put a human face, and in the case of our oral history archives, a human voice, to our understanding of war, we are much less likely to haphazardly or cavalierly enter into military conflicts. Those soldiers are not simply armed forces, they are sons and daughters, parents and spouses.”

“Together,” Lautenberg said, “Rutgers and the Library of Congress are making sure that our country preserves the history of wartime experiences one veteran, one human being, at a time.”

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