Veterans encouraged to tell stories of war realities

Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Medical Specialist Ronald Soppe, of Arlington, Iowa, spoke on camera about his military experiences for a Veterans History Project interview recently. (Travis Bockenstedt photo)

By Correne Martin

This Veterans Day, as military men and women of today’s generations recollect their experiences serving our country, they are encouraged to take advantage of a special opportunity to tell their stories for the generations of tomorrow.
For the first time, tri-state area veterans can video record their personal military memories into the archives of history through the Veterans History Project.

Prairie du Chien author Sherrie Ball has set out to help those who want to pass on their perspectives. She invites area veterans of all wars and citizens who supported war efforts to contact her (326-4851) and discuss an interview for this national effort. With the help of a professional producer, Ball will respectfully interview and record first-hand wartime accounts as told by willing veterans. Then, she will submit them to the Library of Congress for processing, so future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.

Video collections of those interviewed will be created and published on the Veterans History Project website ( and portions of each narrative may even be used in some TV documentaries.

The Veterans History Project, sponsored by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, was signed into law on Oct. 20, 2006, by President Bill Clinton. The project is primarily an oral history program that collects and preserves the interviews of America’s wartime veterans who served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War and Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. The project will also accept recollections from U.S. citizens who professionally supported war efforts, such as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers, defense contractors, and more.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has offered this opportunity in the area,” Ball said. “It may be difficult to get war veterans to open up and share of themselves, explaining the value of their experiences. But I’m hoping they might open up to me, even if it’s for no other reason than to share what they know, via this project.”

As a mother, author and Prairie du Chien resident, Ball became interested in the Veterans History Project shortly after she wrote the internationally-shared poem, “I Do Not Know Your Name,” which honors fallen veterans.

“I made a promise to myself to get to know veterans as individuals, instead of, as a group of anonymous people,” Ball explained. “I did some research on the Veterans History Project and thought it would be a nice way to not only learn the stories behind the people who served in war, but also capture veterans’ knowledge for their families, other veterans and generations for many years to come.”

Following her research, she enlisted the videography expertise of her nephew, Travis Bockenstedt, a freelance TV producer for KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and multimedia producer at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Bockenstedt has produced two award-winning documentaries, “Voices from the Storm” and “Epic Surge,” and is currently completing a third. Bockenstedt agreed to donate his time and help Ball collect the best veterans interviews possible.

Ball also approached Prairie du Chien Veterans Auxiliary President Mary Hannah (who has since passed away, on Oct. 22) with her idea to record discussions with veterans and war civilians of the area.

“She supported my plan and we made an initial strategy to begin talking to veterans this fall,” Ball stated. “In memory of Mary, I would like to press on and try to encourage those individuals who would be willing to share their stories.”

To record veterans’ narratives, Ball plans to choose a day or couple of days when she can schedule interviews with interested individuals. When veterans or civilians contact her, she will collect their name, address and phone number and then call them back when she has dates and a location set. The interviews will likely take place in a community room in the Prairie du Chien area, but Ball said she’d be willing to travel to those who are homebound or living in a nursing home. Participants may be residents of any community in the tri-state area.

“I’m at a gathering point. I’m just trying to get names of people interested right now,” Ball said. “Even if someone knows of a veteran or wartime civilian who might want to do this, I’d love to hear from them. Or if someone isn’t quite sure, but they’d consider it, they should give me a call.”

Once Ball makes contact with an interviewee, she said she will send them a list of questions they can go over prior to the on-camera session. She said the questions will serve as a guideline and are not set in stone. Participants may wish to bring along medals, dog tags, uniforms, helmets, diaries, journals, letters and more, and speak about them during the interview. If desired, some items may be sent along with the video to the Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress’ files.

On the day of the interview, Ball will discuss the questions with the individual prior to taping, a process that will take about an hour and a half. Each submitted video must be at least 15 minutes long, and Bockenstedt will edit them before they’re submitted. Once the Library of Congress receives the footage, it will take six to eight months for processing. Each participant will receive a CD copy of the final video to keep.

So far, Ball has done a few interviews with veterans and, although the memories haven’t come fluently, the participants have been proud in the end.

“They’re very quiet for the most part,” she said. “It’s hard for them to speak about something they feel no one cares about or that doesn’t matter. But I try to encourage them. I believe every cause has an effect on the world around it. And not everything that’s said has to be positive; war isn’t always a positive thing.

“If they’re nervous, I want them to know that I will do them right. It’s really up to them as far as what they speak about during the interview.

“Our veterans are getting older and some don’t have someone through which they can pass down their stories. If they would feel more comfortable, they can bring someone along or they can come with their fellow veteran friends.

Especially for those who want to tell their story, this is a great chance for them to do that.”

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