A few western Montanans get a chance this weekend to learn how to tell Army stories.
Saturday is Armed Forces Day and a free two-day workshop Saturday and Sunday at the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History will train volunteers as oral historians who collect stories from veterans for inclusion in the Army’s historical archives.
It’s part of the first big nationwide push of the Veterans Ambassador Program, which has been in the works for several years, said Karl Warner.
Warner is program and education coordinator at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He won’t be in town, but one of his trained instructors will be. Warner said that as of Tuesday afternoon, half of 10 workshop slots are filled. If there’s a call for more, he’ll schedule another session for Missoula or western Montana “in a couple of months.”
The Army has been collecting its history since it began, but AHEC got its formal start in 1968.
“We are the Army’s primary historical repositories for soldiers' history, a soldier’s eye view of military history,” Warner said.
Its repository counts more than 16 million items, he said, “from after-reports from combat to love letters from a soldier in Korea back home to his wife, and everything in between.”
A big part of the collection are surveys of individual soldiers who fill out Army-standard surveys dating back to the Spanish-American War. They used to be 20 pages long. They’ve been reduced to eight, and that spurred a surge of responses. Warner said a local oral history program was developed from the surveys and that has blossomed in the past nine months into a nationwide initiative.
“We really found the secret sauce to collection is to train volunteers in the Army way of doing it,” he said. “Of course, the Army has regulations even on collecting history.”
Interviewers are trained to do extensive background studies on their subjects before sitting down with them with a tailored list of questions. The interviews are taped and sent away to be transcribed, checked and double-checked. Copies of the final product, besides going into the AHEC archives, are shared with interviewers, the subject and the appropriate local museum. It takes upwards of a year to fully process an interview, although the subject can get a copy of the audio before that.
Warner said once finalized, the interviews become part of the public domain and available for use by scholars, students, and the public for generations to come.
To register for the weekend’s workshop, or to see if spaces are still available, contact Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 717-245-4491.
Training will take place at the military museum in Building T-316 on the west end of the Fort Missoula campus.
On Sunday another Armed Forces Day weekend event is planned in the same building. A World War II Centennial program at 2 p.m. is titled “The Yanks Arrive: The Battle of Cantigny, France, May 1918.” Tate Jones, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History, said the battle was the first engagement fought by the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. The program will include the roles Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick and the U.S. “Big Red One” First Infantry Division played in the battle.