Whoever says patriotism is dead hasn’t met the 40 students who make up Ironwood Ridge High School’s Veterans Heritage Project (VHP), nor the veterans who shared their stories for the organization’s recently published “Since You Asked,” – a 185-page book in which veterans detail their experiences from some of the world’s largest military conflicts.
Born 10 years ago under Cactus Shadows world history teacher Barbara Hatch, the Arizona Veterans Heritage Project closely followed the congressional approval of the Veterans’ History Project, an act that aimed at preserving veteran’s stories in the Library of Congress.
It didn’t take long for other teachers across the nation to see the importance of bringing to life the inspirational stories of the nation’s veterans. So, when Ironwood Ridge history and economics teacher Don Dickinson met Hatch three years ago, he knew it was a concept he wanted to pass on to his students. IRHS completed its second publication this May, and will continue producing the book in years to follow.
“The basic idea is to connect students with veterans,” said Dickinson, whose writing can also be found in the publication. “We locate a veteran, the student goes to their home, we videotape the interview, and the student then writes the story. After we get final approval from the veteran, we send all the stories as well as the videotape to the Library of Congress.”
And while many years from now those preserved stories will continue to be read on a national scale, the experience of interviewing such accomplished veterans is something that – for the students so closely involved in the project – goes far beyond ink on paper.
Many of the stories share close ties with the student-author, such as that of sophomore VHP co-president Tyler Blanchard, whose father, Phillip Blanchard, was awarded the Purple Heart after being shot in the stomach during the Vietnam War.
“He never talked about it,” she Blanchard. “He still doesn’t talk about it. During the interview, he didn’t even mention he’d been shot or won the Purple Heart. He doesn’t think he’s a hero. I already had so much respect for my dad, but this built another layer of respect. I see my dad every day, but this project helped me realize that he is a hero to our family and to our country.”
Like Blanchard, many of the nation’s heroes faced an emotional toll after serving in the military. That was the case of World War II veteran Verne Luther, who, after hearing about the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, decided to pursue the military at age 17. Serving as a flight leader, Luther one day asked another of his crew, Harry Mason, if he’d like to take lead during a training exercise. Mason agreed. That day during training, at about 800 feet, Mason’s plane plummeted downward into a body of water, and he was killed. During that period, more veterans died in training accidents than in combat.
“It was hard on (Verne),” said sophomore and VHP co-president Haley Smith, who interviewed Luther. “He felt he caused it because he asked Harry if he wanted to lead, and that if he hadn’t asked, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“It was difficult to hear stories like this about people dying,” Smith added. “But, at the same time, I think allowing veterans to tell their story also helps them heal.”
Due to the decreasing amount of World War II veterans, much of VHP centers on those who served during that era. More than half of the content in VHP shares the tales of World War II vets, including one of the oldest still living, Sophie Yazzie, age 99.
But age had little bearing on the veterans’ ability to vividly recollect specific details during their time in the military. VHP writer/member Delaney Hinsberg interviewed her grandfather, Lawrence Powers, who served in the Korean War, and was among the first wave of 400 men to gain a stronghold against 20,000 Koreans.
Less than five years ago – almost 60 years after the Korean War ended, Powers was browsing through a veterans’ magazine. In it was a section where people asked for help in locating soldiers who had gone missing in action during various wars. Powers recognized one of the MIA’s names from his time in Korea, and contacted the family.
“He told them, ‘I was there. I buried his body,’” said Hinsberg. “When they buried bodies in Korea, all the graves were unmarked, so there was no way to know otherwise. My grandfather pointed out the exact longitude and latitude of the body, and they found the bone remains of this man, which was consistent with his dental records.”
The VHP recently held a ceremony at the Oro Valley Public Library to honor the veterans involved with the finished product – one that came about after many challenges but even greater reward.
“The hardest part was that all the veterans didn’t think they deserved it,” said Allison Lopez, VHP editor-in-chief. “But everyone in that room deserved it. The most rewarding thing was seeing them light up when they received a copy of the book.”
The fact that the publication will be preserved at the Library of Congress has been another huge perk for those who brought the book to life.
“These stories will be heard,” said Hinsberg. “They’ll go down into history, and people will understand all men and women of service as heroes.”
Dickinson, who was recently honored with the prestigious Circle K Teacher Award, said he couldn’t have been happier with the finished product and the work that went into it.
The VHP continues to grow in membership each year, a symbolic measure of the patriotism that still thrives in today’s society. Asked what new members should expect, Blanchard said the following:
“You learn a whole new meaning of what it is to be proud to be an American. You’ll have a whole new respect for your country and those who served. You’ll be even prouder to be an American.”