Living History: SMC Professors and Students Collect War Veterans Stories

Living History: SMC Professors and Students Collect War Veterans Stories

by Heather Hilliard

This article appeared originally in the Fall/Winter issue of Frontiers Magazine.

One of the most quoted statements regarding war is attributed to Sir Winston Churchill: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Yet he wasn’t the author of the quote; it was George Santayana in his philosophical book published in 1905, “Reason in Common Sense (Volume I)”. The argument was (and remains, in paraphrase) that to progress as a society, we need to learn from the past.
This is exactly what SMC history professors Drs. Cole Cheek and Kirk Hansen are accomplishing with rising sophomore students as they record spoken-word interviews with Spartanburg County war veterans from every major conflict over the past 75 years.

A chance to tell their stories

The working title for the oral histories is the Hub City Veterans Project, says Cheek, who got the idea for capturing the memories as he thought about his father’s service in the United States Marine Corps during Vietnam. “He never got a chance to tell his story.” Cheek’s grandfather, a World War II veteran who retired from the Army after 35 years of service, also never spoke of his experiences.
When Cheek shared the idea with Hansen, the project began taking shape. Hansen also comes from a military background: his maternal grandfather served in the Air Force, and his dad and paternal grandfather were in the Navy during the Second World War. Like Cheek, Hansen never heard his family’s stories and wanted to make sure the ones they capture now are available for others to hear.

Initially, the historians relied on word of mouth to recruit interview subjects. Through staff and student contacts, they interviewed veterans of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars, as well as the civil war in Kosovo. Realizing they’d need to notify a broader audience to meet their goal of at least 50 interviews (enough to fill a planned book), Cheek reached out to Lisa Ware, SMC’s vice president for marketing. Ware invited a Spartanburg Herald Journal reporter to sit in on an interview with a Korean War veteran who had served in the Air Force.

“The Herald Journal ran the story on the front page, which generated quite a few phone calls, including one from our local television station, who decided to do a feature that weekend, which generated even more phone calls,” says Cheek. Community members embraced the project, including Dr. Craig Burnette, a clinical psychiatrist who specializes in treating veterans with PTSD. Burnette, who is also a Vietnam veteran and Spartanburg native, is recruiting additional interviewees through Veterans of Foreign War posts.

A student learning opportunity

The Hub City Veterans Project is also a learning opportunity for SMC students, Cheek notes. Students accompany the two professors on nearly every interview and learn a variety of research techniques and communications skills, including interview development, direct transcription and prioritization of story capture.

This project allows us to give a voice to the unheard…Dr. Kirk Hansen

Hansen points out that the students are also helping give a voice to people within the community who haven’t had an opportunity to be heard. Many of their interview subjects have admitted they’ve never been asked about their experiences. Politics were often to blame for muting their voices, he explains. “This project allows us to give a voice to the unheard, one of the key principles of the mission of SMC and the ideas of its founder, Dr. David English Camak. It helps the community to understand the people that are represented in our area and to bring them closer together.”

Rising sophomore Shelbie Richardson, who plans to get a Ph.D. in history, says the chance to hear the first-person accounts are more valuable than reading them in print. “We can learn things from them that we may not have had the opportunity to read elsewhere,” she says. “Getting it firsthand and hearing what they saw there is really great to pass on to other students, but I also get to sit down and get to know the subjects as people. It gets me out of my comfort zone, pushes me to improve my communication skills.”

Getting involved with the project is one of the experiences Richardson will treasure from her time at SMC, she says. She enjoys SMC because “it’s small and tight knit, where you can know the professors and the students. The professors really care about your success.” For her, this opportunity has opened new ideas and new doors to her future as she learns about victims of war and its effects on the lives of these veterans and their families (read about Richardson’s summer research trip to Germany and Poland on page 16).

In addition to Richardson, Cheek and Hansen have the assistance of several other sophomore students: Garret McKinney, from Inman, South Carolina; Meghan Thompson, of Greenville, South Carolina; and Dennis Slusser, from Spartanburg (who recently returned from active duty in Iraq and will be interviewed for the project).

Seeking Spartanburg County veterans and Blue Star Moms

The Hub City Veterans Project isn’t stopping with those who fought and came home. The team is also seeking out Spartanburg County Blue Star Moms, women who are mothers of veterans or who have children in active service, to broaden perspectives on the effects of war on the home front.

Interviews will be conducted through April 2018, but there are discussions about having some of these veteran interviewees come speak on campus during the year to allow an open forum for more students, faculty, staff and community members to honor their service and their stories. An additional feature that may expand into another project could be the creation of oral history podcasts.

Do you know
a veteran or Blue Star
Mom who is either
currently living in
Spartanburg County
or was born in
the county?
If he or she would like to
share their story, please
contact Dr. Cole Cheek,
Professor of History, at
cheekc@smcsc.edu.

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