Today, most young people cannot recall a time when the United States has not been at war, yet very few Americans have personally felt the consequences of military conflict. How can educators teach the paradox of America’s longest and most invisible war, and what lessons can veterans offer?
As the United States welcomes home a second generation of Afghanistan war veterans, the military-civilian divide has never been wider. Over two million Americans have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, yet the burdens of fighting fall on a small percentage of citizens and their families. In the era of the all-volunteer military, fewer than half of one percent of the total U.S. population serve on active duty. Since 9/11, demographic changes have created unforeseen challenges for many military service members, especially multiple deployments and mobilization of the National Guard and Reserves, forces that historically remained stateside. Those carrying out combat missions also experienced an unprecedented number of “signature wounds”: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and service-connected disabilities. Today, the military addresses these challenges by encouraging cultural change on mental health, tearing down stigmas, and breaking gender barriers. But after service, many veterans experience a range of reintegration challenges, from social isolation and mental illness to incarceration and suicide.
Yet these problems are not entirely new. Vietnam veterans came home from war with many of these issues, with few services. In response, over the past decades, Vietnam veterans organized and lobbied for greater access to benefits and raised awareness on PTSD and other disabilities. Many serve as mentors to post-9/11 veterans today. Civilians can also help meet these social challenges by becoming informed about experiences during and after military service and by learning to engage in dialogue with veterans. This institute helps educators teach about readjustment challenges for veterans, and these lessons will help students connect to the broader social and cultural context of mental health and disability.
As an interdisciplinary field in the humanities and social sciences, veterans studies teaches civilians how to engage in dialogue with veterans and to understand their unique experiences at war and afterward. Veterans studies is an emerging scholarly field that critically examines the experiences of military veterans and their families. Areas of inquiry include veteran identity and culture, shared experiences in the military, the effects of service-connected injuries, disabilities, mental health challenges, and family and readjustment difficulties. Equally important, veterans studies addresses the complicated and multifaceted aspects of race, gender, sexuality, and class during and after military service, accounting for the vast diversity of service members and their experiences. As such, approaching difficult conversations on racial and other forms of social inequality through veterans’ experiences can help K-12 educators navigate these divisive subjects while bridging divides between communities.
We believe that storytelling and personal narratives best serve to promote empathy, teach cultural understanding, and make connections across communities and between generations. In this spirit, our summer institute shall train K-12 educators to conduct student-led oral history projects with veterans in their communities. This institute draws from veterans studies and oral history to enhance curriculum on the Cold War, Vietnam War, and post-9/11 eras in American history, and areas in English Language Arts, Civics, and Communication. This combination engages students with hands-on experiences, teaches students to do research, ask informed interview questions, and analyze narratives and primary sources. Additionally, it enhances technological and interpersonal communication skills. Students also learn about public history, digital humanities, community involvement, and civic engagement through this process. Equally important, these advanced skills prepare students to transition into higher education and prepare them for professional careers.
But this methodology also requires special considerations, training from experienced practitioners, and careful planning. As the project director, I have over a decade of experience interviewing combat veterans and have led workshops on the ethical concerns of doing oral history with trauma survivors. Building on the Oral History Association’s principles and best practices and applying lessons from leading trauma theorists, this institute will train educators to incorporate trauma-informed oral history projects with veterans while mitigating potential harm. When interviewing veterans, civilians must be not only knowledgeable of war and the military, but we must also be sensitive to traumatic memories. Teachers must prepare students to be aware of the ethical intricacies of recording complex histories and should have a list of available resources for veteran narrators (interviewees). Yet, neither teachers nor students should shy away from complex topics and challenging conversations in the humanities. With grounded training, novice oral historians can produce insightful, ethical, and powerful historical records that critically examine American wars and society.
Oral history not only allows veterans to tell their stories in their own words, but it also teaches students the human costs of war, enabling them to make personal connections between abstractions and realities. Participants in veteran oral history projects tend to develop a more critical understanding of conflict and a deeper appreciation of citizenship and patriotism. Therefore, oral history has the greatest potential for preserving unacknowledged histories and promoting a meaningful educational experience that helps civilians learn about war safely and respectfully while remembering and honoring those who serve in the military. Through veterans studies and oral history, these two avenues help educators approach the standard curriculum through novel and dialogical ways that connect the past to the present, allowing students to see how their own lives intersect with global, national, and local histories.
-Dr. Jason A. Higgins