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Veterans Share their War Stories at Greenbelt Library

Greenbelt Branch Library encourages residents to participate in an oral history project.

Robert Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project, encouraged Greenbelters to “make this Veterans Day meaningful” by listening to a veteran’s story. He said that veterans telling their stories is another opportunity for them to perform a patriotic act for their country.

“Me and my sergeant were surrounded in an ambush,” said Retired Army Col. Dennis Duggan, a Vietnam War veteran, as he told Greenbelters his story at the last Saturday.

“I provided cover fire so he could get out of there, and then I ran out ammo, and they came after me. I had a grenade, so I threw it at them and ran. Just ran, into the rice paddies.” Duggan paused. “I don't tell that story very often.”

He stopped again to collect himself, as an audience member called out, “Take your time, sir.”

Greenbelters gathered at the library to hear the stories of Duggan and other area veterans, 13 in all, who shared about their lives, careers and war experiences. The library hosted them in recognition of Veterans Day and in part to encourage residents to get involved with the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project.

“We're trying to capture the human experience of war,” said Patrick. “What he felt like when he went to boot camp; what she felt like when she was treating a patient in a hospital somewhere; or what it felt like to be in an airplane over Germany or in a jungle in Vietnam.”

The project, a program by The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, began in 2000 as a volunteer effort to document veterans’ oral histories from the time of World War I until the present. Ellen Utley, Greenbelt Branch Library manager, said the event was meant to bring the project to Greenbelt. She said the library will make materials available for individuals who want to get involved.

As veterans shared their stories, in addition to the somber stories, some were funny tales of their recruitment or training days, which had the whole room laughing.

“The commander yelled, ‘Left face!’ and I turned right, so he made me hold a rock in my left hand,” said Retired Army Lt. Col. Margaret Aquilla Watkins Stanfield, a World War II veteran. “Then he yelled, ‘Right face!’ and I turned left. So he said, ‘Captain, you need another rock?’” 

Aside from stories of war, some gave insights into service issues, such as segregation in the military. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Furey, recalled his days in the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, or “Triple Nickels,” the first black paratroopers. A former cadet nurse recalled entering the hospital from the back door while white nurses entered from the front.

For Utley, collecting veterans’ histories is just the first step in honoring them.

“Veterans Day is about a renewed attention to those who have served, and addressing the needs they have,” she said. “For example, such a proportion of homeless people are veterans, so communities really need to see how they serve them.”

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