Classes help veterans' memories of war make history
Aug 5, 2006 07:00 AM
Tucson, Arizona

The U.S. Marines rationed him two beers a day. It's a detail Ken Kurkowski remembered about serving in Vietnam.

He recalled war protesters spitting on him at the San Francisco airport and barely escaping death when his tank exploded.

The veteran poured everything -- the bloodshed, the wild nights, the letters to his girlfriend -- onto 106 pages.

Within a year, the Library of Congress will make his memoir a piece of American history.

Congress launched the Veterans History Project in 2000. It collects oral and written histories, photos and video interviews from veterans, Red Cross workers, United Service Organizations members and others involved in American war efforts.

The stories stretch from World War II to Iraq. This year, thousands more will add stories to the ongoing project. Selected histories are digitized on the project's Web site, in the form of multimedia scrapbooks.

"Our mission is not necessarily to collect histories from notable war heroes but your everyday man and woman. We want the collection to be reflective of what the average person went through," said project spokeswoman Anneliesa Clump Behrend.

Kurkowski wrote his history in a class at Maricopa County's Northwest Regional Library in Surprise. The branch is one of about five Phoenix metropolitan area locations helping vets document their stories.

"It's important that these stories be told before they are lost to posterity," said Frank Waelde of Peoria, a former Marine.

Students in the class mulled over military records, newspaper clippings and Tom Clancy novels. The materials jog the students' memories, and then they sit to write.

Kurkowski and other Arizonans offer the slices of life that Clump Behrend looks for.

Sgt. Ennis Miller, a black Surprise resident and a veteran of three wars, served in the Korean War right after military segregation ended. Sun City resident James Lowe was starved in a German prison camp during World War II.

Their essays delve into the personal, the gruesome and the comical.

"I had about six or seven bogs, men that didn't show up for duty, that would be smoking pot and chasing the women down in Saigon and stuff like this," said Miller of men under his command in Vietnam. Another time, water mines detonated and bullets flew all around him as he saved eight men from a sinking tugboat.

"I said, 'Lord, I'm in your hands,' " he said.

Kurkowski buried some memories so deep they didn't surface until he started writing.

"My wife has told me many times that she never knew that about me," the Surprise resident said.

Kurkowski said the project "has given me a chance to look back at a lot of things that happened, a lot of decisions I made and why I made (them). It gave me a chance to really put those things in perspective."

Miller and Kurkowski will pass their scrapbooks on to their children and grandchildren.

Family storytelling inspired the Veterans History Project from the very beginning. At a family gathering, Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Ron Kind got the idea while tape recording his relatives' war tales. Clump Behrend suggests others follow Kind's lead.

A formal setting is not required. Family picnics and dinner tables are adequate interview settings.

"We don't only take digital, high-broadcast quality (material). It matters more to record the story any way you can," she said.

Official paperwork must accompany sent items. Project organizers accept all media, including cassettes, VHS tapes and mini DVDs.

Whenever the members of the class in Surprise wants to record stories on digital video camera, it heads to Cave Creek High School, where seniors conduct interviews while the veterans tell their tales.

Now, class organizer Bill Kummer is recruiting a younger generation of veterans to record their stories. He and Kurkowski hope soldiers returning from the Middle East sign up.

"I think that the guys in Iraq, when they get back, should really write their story while it's fresh in their minds. Forty years later, it gets a little hard," Kurkowski said.

Kummer, a World War II and Korean War veteran, started the class after submitting his own history. Arizona Sen. John McCain recently sent Kummer a letter commending him for his work with Arizona war veterans.