Veterans and Memory

Brooklyn College student Elizabeth Jefimova interviewed World War II veteran Seymour Kaplan on February 24, 2017, at Kaplan’s home in Brooklyn.

In this clip, Kaplan recalls how his willingness to tell his story of service was shut down. He did not speak of the war for fifty years. In my experience as an interviewer, I have often found that veterans are encouraged to be silent about what they have seen and done in war — often by their very own families.

Day Two


Day two of the VVA Board of Directors and Conferencen of State Chapter Presidents meeting, Silver Spring, MD. Very moving and useful. Great opportunities for oral histories here.

The VVA is worrying about its longevity. Some years ago it decided to be a ‘last man standing’ organization. How long can it hold out? If the decision is made to close down, how will this be done? The VVA has assets that will have to be disposed of. But, even as discussion about this issue grows, membership numbers are increasing nationally; VVA now has 78,816 members, an all time high. 

Oral History and the Present

At bottom, oral history is about telling stories and thinking about their meaning. John Del Vecchio, author of The 13th Valley and other books about Vietnam and Vietnam veterans, once wrote that “The story we tell ourselves of ourselves, individually or culturally, creates our self-image. Behavior, individually and culturally, is consistent with self-image. Story determines behavior. As story changes, self-image changes; as self-image changes, behavior changes; as behavior changes, so too changes the results of behavior. That is, personal and cultural story have ramifications.”[1]

Del Vecchio is right. How we think about ourselves, and how we tell others about our past, has a direct and practical impact on the present. Oral history makes this clear.


[1] John M. Del Vecchio, “The Importance of Story: Individual and Cultural Effects of Skewing the Realities of American Involvement in Southeast Asia for Social, Political and/or Economic Ends,”  ( 6 June, 2004.

Women Warriors Describe Their Struggles


Women warriors described their struggles

Saturday evening, December 7 at the New York Public Library four women veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan gathered at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (42nd and 5th Ave.) of the New York Public Library.

A part of the NYPL’s fall series of panels focusing on New York City veterans, and a service of the library’s NYC Veterans Oral History Project, the panel brought moderator Meg McLagan, an independent filmmaker and co-director of the film Lioness, (about women in ground combat in Iraq) together with veterans Nicole Goowdin, Teresa Fazo, Rebeckah Havrilla and RaeAnne Pae. (Bios of the panelists, provided by the NYPL, are here.)

McLagan interviewed the women, using a journalistic or anthropological style of questioning, turning from one panelist to another in succession to answer questions.

Taken in combination, the women’s responses to questions suggested that joining the military was now increasingly understood as one career option available; that military service is as “natural” for women as it is for men today.

However, there experience is quite obviously distinct from that of men, both while in the service and afterward.

All acknowledged that financial incentives were critically important in drawing the women into service. Goodwin, who comes from the Bronx, indicated that a difficult home situation at 19 made her search for a way out, and the Army seemed to be one route. Fazio joined ROTC in order to pay for a degree at MIT. Havrilla wanted a college degree without student debt, and was also driven by a deep sense of patriotism inherited from her family. Pae, who joined ROTC as a sophomore in 2001, echoed those ideas, but also indicated her desire to serve the country, to meet people and to benefit from the camaraderie that service can provide.

Pae had been a cheerleader in high school and as a petite woman also wanted to demonstrate that anyone can join ROTC. She recalled that her nickname in those days was “the pickle” because of her short stature and green uniform.

The women had a wide range of job responsibilities within the military. Havrilla was a bomb disposal specialist in Iraq and Afghanistan, but was also brought in to collect biometric data after explosions, and as a liaison to local women. As a result, she developed skills far outside her job description. Pae worked in Army intelligence, and was responsible for drones and the image data they collected. Fazio worked in electronic communications in the Marine Corps and served in Iraq for seven months in 2004. As an officer, she described herself as a “camp counselor with machine guns.” She loved the work. Goodwin had wanted to be a journalist originally, but was told she did not qualify and as a consequence went into supply. She found the work challenging and meaningful.

When the discussion turned to issues of military sexual trauma, two members of the panel indicated that they had been raped while in the service. Havrilla has been the most public of the four, testifying before Congress in an effort to change policy with regard to military command accountability in circumstances of sexual trauma. She joined a class action suit intended to force these changes, which was ultimately thrown out. She remains committed to seeing the institution change so that other women are not faced with rape as an “hazard of service,” as one judge indicated it was. All of the women on the panel wanted to emphasize that their particular experiences were not reflective, necessarily, of the realities faced by all women in the military.

All were profoundly changed by their service. Pae went in wanting to be an officer, and got more out of it than she could’ve imagined. Her family has been enormously supportive, and she met her husband while serving. Havrilla has had to work hard to release the “battle mind” of active service members, struggling to relax, and accept assistance when needed. Fazio learned how to exercise authority as an officer in the Marine Corps and how to teach. Because Marines are of all ages and competencies she now understands how to get an audience to listen, and then to execute. This has been of benefit as she moved into the role of a teaching assistant at New York University, but it also brings with it challenges, because, as she says, “undergrads don’t salute.”

Echoing what was said at the military families panel earlier in the week, these women remind us that military service brings with it burdens that are not necessarily visible, but also offers the opportunity for personal growth.

If you are interested in participating in the New York City Veterans Oral History Project run by the New York Public Library, please contact Alexandra Kelly at or call 212-304-0971




More on Rudy Thomas and the Power of Oral History

At a panel presentation held at the Brooklyn Historical Society in 2008 called The Impact of Listening and Being Heard, Rudy Thomas said the following:

My grandmother raised me from 2 months old. She brought me here at age 16, I never lived with my mother, and I visited, but never stayed with her.

I had the opportunity to see [her] after 30 years and I wanted to talk to her about my life, One of the first things she said to me was, “Oh you’re a killer, I hear you killed people, you did this and you did that.” And I shut down instantly. As of a matter of fact I didn’t speak to her after that.

And coming from my mother telling me I was a killer and all this stuff, I said, ‘Damn, if she felt that way I can’t imagine what the other people who didn’t even know me would feel.’

Then I had the opportunity when I spoke with Phil to talk about my experience, and I said you know what, a lot of people have the wrong impression about Viet Nam veterans, maybe if I say something about what I did and how I felt in my experiences it will shed a little light, a different light and help.*

Oral history does hold power. And Rudy Thomas will be missed for his honesty and his courage to speak.

*Lightly edited by me, PFN


Rudy Thomas, photo by pfn April 2011

Rudy Thomas, photo by pfn April 2011

War Trauma and It’s Consequences

john Hamill jump school copy

John Hamill, a medic with the 173 Airborne Brigade (the Herd) in Vietnam in 1967-1968, explained to me the connection between war time trauma and what happens after a veteran returns home:

I think a lot of Vietnam veterans didn’t really start doing themselves in, suicide, drinking themselves to death until five or six years after the war ended. Things got worse for a lot of those guys. After the initial rush of being home they’re so disappointed. I said, “Why?” You come home, you’re safe, you feel good, you have that euphoric burst initially, you know, and then you get married, you get divorced, your fucking job sucks and then you start trying to trace it back and you can’t get any further back than Dac To. And . . you get stuck on that, you know.

It didn’t really kick in, though, immediately. It’s sort of like a traumatic amputation. You get your hand shot off. It doesn’t bleed for an hour because all the muscles spasm and they hold back and then “shww,” and they relax and it starts to come out. Then it comes a gusher. I think that’s what happened to a lot of guys. And there was no interim kind of treatment.

PTSD was not diagnosed until it was too late, just like Agent Orange.

It’s like, ‘Shit.’

John Hamill is profiled in my book Bringing It All Back Home.

Brooklyn Museum exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath

Today I visited the WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath show at the Brooklyn Museum.

I highly recommended it, despite the fact that I found too many familiar images — perhaps as many at 1/3 were well known to me. I wasn’t counting in order to be exact, but that is my impression. These included iconic pictures by Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, and many others, whose works have been published and circulated in the major American media. I spotted several images that have been used on the covers of books that I have read, including one of the Marine landing at Inchon, a photo of Soviet civilians looking for loved ones among the dead after a battle, and one taken at Stalingrad that appears on the cover of my copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Personally I would’ve liked to see fewer well-known images and more pictures from conflicts that have generally escaped the American gaze, although, to be fair, there were pictures of survivors of the genocide in the Rwanda, Serbia, the Irish “troubles” of the 1960s, and most interestingly, a photograph taken in Paris during the revolution of 1848. Those images were powerful and arresting because they were new to me.

The show generally achieves the objectives the curators set. They wanted to take viewers from the moment of “origins,” when wars begin, through training, to deployment, combat and all its ramifications, finally bringing visitors back home again to a section on remembrance. It is a densely packed set of galleries, filled with images, and they are right to warn audiences that it can be an emotionally intense experience. For me, the images of the wounded and maimed — soldiers and civilians — were the hardest. These pictures do powerfully demonstrate the human commonalities embedded in the experience of armed conflict.

Immediately after visiting the show I attended a gallery talk by one of the assistant curators, who explain the logic behind the organization and the choices the original curators had made. (The show is traveling from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

The Brooklyn Museum, working with Story Corps, has brought veterans and veterans groups in to view it and give feedback, which can only be a good thing. The assistant curator I listened to indicated that part of the goal of the exhibition is to stimulate conversation between service personnel, veterans and civilians about the nature of warfare, and our various rolls in it.

Go see it. It is open until February 2, 2014.

Vietnam Combat Losses and New York City

In 1971, E. James Lieberman published a study in the Journal Of Marriage and the Family, entitled “American Families In The Vietnam War.”[1]

While the Department of Defense asserted that, at the time, it did not have information on family characteristics of US casualties in Vietnam, some statistics could be obtained through the Veterans Administration. Of the 50,000 US serviceman killed in action in Vietnam between 1961 and 1970, 90% were between the ages of 18 and 26. Ordinarily this group would have a very low mortality. “War deaths in the 19 – 23 age group equals automobile accident deaths in 1966; all acts and deaths in 1967, and all other deaths combined in 1968.” Lieberman reminded us that such a rate of death among a given population would be regarded an epidemic.

Lieberman rightly pointed out that all these 50,000 deaths were scattered around the country, so that naturally any given community did not feel the total impact. Still, Lieberman calculated that  “for every 10 men killed in Vietnam, there are close to 16 surviving parents of the original 20… and about 12 grandparents of the original 40. This means 28 direct lineal forbearers for 10 servicemen, or almost 3 for each one. And there are, on average, more than two siblings for each serviceman. Including aunts, uncles, cousins and fiancés, at least 250,000 Americans have been bereaved by death of an immediate family member in Vietnam so far. According to Lieberman’s calculations, “there were the least 30,000 widows and orphans, 80,000 parents, and 60,000 grandparents, and the rest brothers and sisters.” Additionally, Lieberman recognized that about 150,000 servicemen had suffered serious injuries, involving at least another 750,000 family members.

In total, over one million Americans had a close family member either killed or seriously wounded in Vietnam by 1970.

Effectively, Lieberman argued that the war in Vietnam left behind a “silent minority” made up of less privileged whites and relatively high achieving nonwhites. Lieberman cited a study which found that within the U.S. Congress, a body with 234 draft – eligible sons, one half (118) were deferred, 26 served in Vietnam; one was wounded.

To sum up, “one family in 50 lost a member to the war in Vietnam; one in 10 suffered casualty, about half of those serious.”

Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker have described the “circles of grief” that surround the death of any single soldier in the First World War. The first circle of bereavement or mourning, they argue, “was undoubtedly composed of the soldiers themselves.” In many cases they found eyewitness accounts of soldiers who would maintain as best they could do grades of comrades to whom they felt especially close, and would sometimes go to the length of informing the dead man’s family about the location of his burial place.

But, they continue, the circles of mourning on the home-front are wider and perhaps more lasting. They invite us to think of the impact of a battlefield death as a series of concentric circles, quote whose contours become increasingly difficult to trace as we move away from the most strongly affected relatives. The first circle might include the most direct relatives the dead man’s parents, grandparents, wives, children, brothers and sisters. Beyond that would be a circle including aunts, uncles cousins, nieces, nephews brother is – and sisters – and – law. The authors cautioned that while the first two circles correspond to what demographers call the immediate family, relationships in the second circle could be as intense as those in the first period and beyond this second circle of morning would be made up of yet another group of people who were distant family members, but as they accurately remind us, “ this circle is impossible to reconstitute.” But still, there is yet another circle around each one of the war dead: the circle of chosen relationships, male and female friends. As almost everyone knows, having a friend passed away can be equally and sometimes more painful than having a direct family member die.

The authors emphasize that they are not here working to establish anything like a hierarchy of grief, but rather to map out the territory of the way any given death could devastate a very large number of people, creating what they call “after shocks.”

In an effort to get a grasp on the circles of grief caused by combat losses during the First World War, the authors have relied on a concept of ‘entourage.’ By which they mean individuals that surround any given person. They cite a study that concludes quote all individuals, regardless of age or type of households seem to be surrounded by a minimum of 10 people in their immediate family and a maximum of around 20.

In the case of France during the great war, extrapolating from those rough figures, they arrived at what they considered the following plausible conclusion: “if we add up immediate family, distant relatives and wider entourage, it seems that by the end of the great war, the various circles of morning included, in France, the quasi-totality of the population. Virtually an entire society was probably in morning; an entire society formed by a community of mourning.”[2]

If we borrow the conclusions reached by Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker in their study of the First World War and take the number of casualties for New York City, 1741, and multiply by 20,  some 34,820 persons were directly affected by combat losses  in Vietnam  between 1964 and 1975.

The population of New York City in 1975 was 7,895,563.

These figures suggest that at least one person out of every 226 individuals living in New York City in 1975 had been directly affected by the combat death in Vietnam of someone they knew or were close to.

[1] E.  James Lieberman, “American Families and the Vietnam War,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 33, No. 4, Special Double Issue: Violence and the Family and Sexism in Family Studies, Part 2 (Nov., 1971), pp. 709-721.

[2] Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, Annette Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 201-212.