Very few people intern so that they can learn more about history and life. This is not surprising, as the large majority of internships do not claim to impart anything but practical office skills. Luckily, my internship is exposing me to a lot more, both in terms of professional abilities and life lessons. I want to focus on the latter for today’s post.
As I explain in my About page, I am working as a Junior Fellow with the Veterans History Project (VHP), an arm of the American Folklife Center that collects and preserves the individual narratives of our nation’s veterans. VHP focuses most intently on collecting oral history interviews in various forms, so that future generations can learn about war first-hand, even after our nation’s veterans are no longer with us. Part of my job is to update catalog entries for various collections. This means that I am exposed to the stories of hundreds of veterans and war-serving civilians, which span from WWII to the present.
The first lesson that I learned – one which took more time than you might imagine – is that these people are all real individuals. It is easy, when reading about someone in a newspaper, to forget that behind every name is a family, friends, a career, and life plans. It is easy to forget, when seeing death statistics or MIA numbers, that those are people. It’s important not to forget that.
The second lesson I have learned, however, is the more important one. War is real. Again, it’s easy to read about events like D-Day, the Fall of Saigon, and the storming of Taliban camps in the Middle East. It is much harder, by far, to place yourself in the shoes of those brave men and women fighting those battles.
Many of the stories I hear from veterans are not dissimilar from what the public often hears when talking to family members or friends who have served. Humorous stories, the singular shock of basic training, and camaraderie among soldiers are common aspects of oral history interviews with veterans.
However, as most people have read, this is not the whole of war. In between these funny stories and anecdotes, I have heard more.
A plaque depicting a field hospital at the World War II memorial.
I have heard World War II veterans break down in tears when describing their roles in liberating concentration camps. Describing the horrors of storming the beaches during D-Day, of watching friends perish, of rescuing wounded and dying allies.
I have heard Korean War veterans describe the terror of firefights during the night. Nurses who flew wounded soldiers to evacuation hospitals describing the helpless feeling felt in the face of the constant waves of the sick and dying.
The statues of the Korean War memorial, set among the rugged terrain of juniper bushes.
I have heard Vietnam War veterans describe the danger of guerrilla warfare in the jungles. Discussing the constant worry of enemy engagement beyond the next cluster of trees, and the pain of discrimination they felt when they returned home.
I have heard Gulf War veterans recall the sound of roadside bombs detonating, and remembering the cries of young and wounded comrades.
I have heard this, and I have heard much more. These stories come from our nation’s veterans. Man and woman. Of all races. Of all religions. Of all branches of service. Of all duties, from airman to medic. It has shook me. I have had to step away from my work to recollect myself. And even with these first-hand accounts, I can still only imagine – and incompletely at best – what life was like for these veterans.
The World War II memorial, an encompassing oval set between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool.
With these accounts in my mind, I set out on Flag Day to visit some of Washington’s war memorials. Walking through the Vietnam Veterans memorial, I got a sense of the true scale and cost of war. The structure, which carves into the earth, reminded me of the weight of the experiences of war and discrimination faced by veterans of the Vietnam War. The arrangement of the Korean War memorial recalled in my mind images of rugged and confusing terrain, and the larger-than-life statues reminded me of the cooperation of various military forces during the conflict. The all-encompassing World War II memorial, set between the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument, reminded me of the united effort of the entire United States in opposing Axis tyranny.
The Vietnam Veterans memorial, which slices into the ground.
These memorials mean more to me now, because of my internship. When applying for my internship, I was not fully aware of the impact it would have on me. Aside from the incredible experience in archival and preservation work that I am getting, I learn a lot about our nation’s history. My internship opens my eyes to the world around me. I truly believe that any internship can have a similar effect on someone. During internships, I urge you to seek more than just the professional experience. Look outside the box of “career skills,” and you may be surprised by what you find.