By Steve Zalusky
Scott Morris, first floor manager at the St. Louis Public Library, is a librarian who possesses a special insight into the world of veterans. He is a Marine Corps veteran who grew up in a military family – his mom was a veteran, his dad flew helicopters in Vietnam and he can trace his family’s military background to the Civil War.
Morris draws on his expertise as a librarian and his experience as a veteran in conducting a writers workshop for veterans in the area. It is an example of how our nation’s libraries serve our nation’s veterans every day.
Many libraries will be honoring veterans by shutting their doors on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. On the days preceding and following Veterans Day, several will be holding ceremonies commemorating the day, with such activities as flag raising ceremonies, lectures and even personal appearances by veterans.
But throughout the year, libraries make themselves available to veterans, providing everything from food collection drives to housing assistance.
The Churchland Branch Library in Portsmouth, Virginia is hosting a Veterans Resource Expo, a free event offering veterans and their families information about employment benefits and training, legal issues, health and wellness and education, as well as giveaways and free flu shots.
Besides these practical resources, libraries also offer veterans cultural resources, including the opportunity to tell their stories in a safe place.
The writers workshop at the St. Louis Public Library is offered once each year. Since it began three years ago, it has been a 10-week workshop supplemented by a monthly meeting with those who wish to continue.
The goal, Morris said, is to provide an outlet for veterans to tell their stories. It also gives veterans access to teachers who have their masters in fine arts – one of the facilitators has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches writing at a local university. “What you’re getting here is basically a college level writing workshop,” he said.
In addition to instruction, the workshop can also serve a healing function. “We also know that writing can be therapeutic,” he said. “We’re not pushing it that way, but we know that’s one of the effects that it has.”
In 2017, it is branching out, including a writers workshop for women veterans. “We know that there are a lot of women veterans out there who have a unique story to tell, but I don’t know that they necessarily want to do it in the company of other men,” he said.
Morris said he was in the Marine Corps from 1977 to 1981. “I served with Vietnam vets, guys that were actually 18 and 19 (then). These guys were like 24 or 25.” He said the experience made an impression, especially since it acquainted him with veterans affected by PTSD.
“I remember one of the guys. He was a real mild mannered guy when you met him, but when he drank….I ended up seeing him again, and his hands were all bandaged up. I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘I just punched out car windows.’”
Morris said the program started as a result of interest from within the library foundation. He said he reached out to the veteran community and the writing community after he was approached about becoming involved in the effort.
Now, he said, the library is thinking about expanding the program to encompass not only writing, but also something along the lines of StoryCorps.
“Say they don’t want to learn how to write, but they want to talk about their story or talk about some of their experiences, we could interview them. We have a sound recording room. We have a MakerSpace. So it’s not going to cost us anything to do it. And we have the capability of, then, saving it on the Cloud. And then, what we would like to do is make it accessible to the public off of our website.”
There is also the potential of expanding the program’s horizons by incorporating film as well. The library is thinking of involving Cinema St. Louis, a nonprofit organization. One of the benefits of the program, he said, is the camaraderie among the veterans.
“All veterans have a shared experience,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you were a World War II veteran, a Korean veteran (or) and Iraq or Afghanistan veteran. We all have the same shared experiences of being in the military and we have all go through the same things. You feel comfortable and you feel safe.”
Another opportunity for veterans to tell their stories was furnished by the New York City Veterans Oral History Project. The project was undertaken from January through December of 2013 at The New York Public Library in collaboration with The Veterans History Project at The Library of Congress.
Volunteer interviewers recorded the personal accounts of American war veterans in neighborhoods around the city to give future generations the chance to understand the veterans’ experience. Recordings are being stored in the permanent archive at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Alexandra Kelly, manager, Outreach Services and Adult Programming, said, “The Library of Congress oral project is kind of a springboard for many efforts that are connected to it, related to collecting and preserving and sharing the stories of veterans around the country. The New York Public Library is just one small effort of many of those efforts working to do that.”
Although the library is not active in collecting the stories now, the project itself was a springboard for other community oral history projects in neighborhoods around the city. “We trained community members how to conduct oral histories with veterans that they know in their communities and they send us those oral histories. We then put them on our oral history website as well as share them with the Library of Congress so they can be preserved,” she said.
She said about 15 to 20 people conducted interviews, including library staff as well as volunteers throughout the city, while 40 veterans shared their stories.
“It’s really important that we make sure that we take the time to listen to the veterans that we serve, because they served us,” she said. “A project like this really embodies that idea in the most amazing possible way, because you have volunteers, a lot of them library staff people, now having the opportunity to sit down with the veterans that they work with at their branches regularly and actually just listen to their stories and make sure that they are put somewhere so that other people can listen to them.”
Of the interviews, she said one of the most memorable was conducted with Vietnam veteran Everett Cox.
“Everett shared his story about feeling really cynical after the war was over and coming back home as a veteran and not feeling like he was treated very well and then learning to kind of find peace within himself through meditation,” she said. “Hearing Everett’s story just helped me understand a little bit more of the ways that he coped coming back to a society that didn’t necessarily agree with the war and him being a veteran and how that kind of unfolded for him. It was really powerfully told, too.”
In the interview, Cox remembered training at Fort Lewis, where he was reminded of his family home, which was on a farm surrounded by sugar maple trees. “I would climb those trees. They were a second home to me,” he said.
During the training, he said, he shot a tree. He continued, “I really felt I would not be coming back from Vietnam, and I thought I should take a tree with me. “I think I was in some way preparing for my own death.”
Kelly also said the project interviewed several female veterans. “I really enjoyed hearing their stories, because, for a lot of them, they were some of the first people who were female combat veterans,” she said.