‘We’ve got to do this’: Mast advocates for Veterans History Project

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast did an interview in December. Now he wants every veteran in his congressional district to do the same. His office will host training sessions for volunteer interviewers and interview sessions for veterans in February.

That December interview was for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. Mast is an Army veteran who lost both legs in an enemy attack while serving in support of Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan.

“The Veterans History Project is not something I was totally aware of in the past – until I participated in it,” said Mast, whose Congressional district includes St. Lucie County.

The volunteer interviewer training session will be on Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Okeechobee Branch Library, 5689 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The filming session will be on Saturday, Feb. 29, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Royal Palm Beach High School, 10600 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. There will be more training and filming sessions to come. Information about them will be posted at www.mast.house.gov/vhp.

The Veterans History Project started in 2000. “The collection now numbers over 110,000 individual accounts of U.S. veterans’ first-person experiences,” Monica Mohindra, head of program coordination and communication, said in an emailed response to inquiries. “Those veterans served from WWI through the recent conflicts, and the accounts are comprised of oral history interviews, and/or original materials such as original photographs, letters, manuscripts including diaries, journals and memoirs and documents.”

And it’s all online at www.loc.gov/vets.

“With the growing years and collections, VHP can now count over 850 published books that cite the Veterans History Project collections, and an increased understanding of the value not just in creating these lasting legacies, but that the users who work with them give them even more life,” Mohindra said in the email.

Mast said he did an about 20-minute interview for the Veterans History Project and immediately knew he wanted to get every veteran’s story recorded for posterity. Staff at his office said he’d barely finished the interview when he called in and said, “We’ve got to do this.”

Mast told St. Lucie Voice talking about his military service to an interviewer made him realize its importance. That, he said, can be a powerful antidote to a widely-acknowledge problem – the higher-than-average rate of deaths by suicide among veterans. The Department of Veteran Affairs released its 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report in September. It analyzed data from 2005 to 2017, the last complete year of records, and found that the suicide rate for veterans is about 1.5 times higher than it is for their non-veteran peers.

“As we think about veteran suicide, anyone’s suicide, it’s about a person’s (sense of) worth,” Mast said. “I think it’s important to show the worth of a person who put on the uniform of this country.”

Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin proposed creating the Veterans History Project after a family barbeque. His father and a family friend started talking about their military days. Kind realized he’d never heard many of his father’s military stories, so grabbed a video camera and recorded the talking men.

Kind figured there must be somewhere he could submit a copy of the recording to be put on the then-growing Internet, so students, historians and researches could see it. He found none. The American Folklife Center seemed the right place to start a collection of veterans’ stories and documents, so Kind filed a bill to make that happen. It passed Congress with a unanimous vote by both houses.

The collection of veterans’ stories has grown from there.

Mast’s office hosted its first volunteer interviewer training on Jan. 18, and filming on Feb. 1. Both were in Martin County. He said the response was startling.

“This is a snowball in exactly the way we want it to snowball,” he said.

Mohindra said Mast’s Veteran History Project interview will be available to view online by summer.

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