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Veterans Heritage Project Connects Kids With Soldiers To Share War Stories

 Veterans Heritage Project logo
(Image via veteransheritage.org)

The Phoenix-based Veterans Heritage Project connects middle and high school students with U.S. military veterans to hear their stories of fighting in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam — among other conflicts. Thousands of those oral histories have been donated to the Library of Congress.

Earlier this month, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society decided to recognize the Veterans Heritage Project with one of its 2018 Citizen Honors Awards.

Project founder Barbara Hatch and Sophia Ripa, who participated in the program as a student and who is now a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, joined The Show to talk about the project's accomplishments and its influence .

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: So Barbara, let me start with you. Why did you decide to begin the Veterans Heritage Project?

BARBARA HATCH: When the movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out, students had a lot of questions about World War II. It was back in ‘98. So we invited veterans just to my classroom and that went on for about five years. And the students were so affected by it that, and their parents were so excited about it, that we decided to form a large organization to reach out to more students and more schools. Because the impact on the young people meeting a World War II veteran was powerful.

GOLDSTEIN: What sort of questions, if you can recall, did some of the students have?

HATCH: Well, I tend to ask some formal questions about "why did you go in the service? What was the event that led you to join the military?" Students are more likely to ask, “What did you eat? Were you afraid?" They're much more five senses and often those questions actually lead to the best answers. They'll lead to stories. And so I think it's getting the stories not the overall view of the war or we can get that from a book. But what they did personally I think that's the powerful part that young people, they get right to the heart of the matter.

GOLDSTEIN: Sophia, what was it like for you? How did you decide that when you first became interested in this? I mean obviously you've gone on to a career. So obviously there was some passion for you. But when you first got started, did you talk to a veteran of World War II? Tell us about your experience.

SOPHIA RIPA: So Ms. Hatch originally recruited me, so to say. I had just moved from Argentina to Arizona, and I felt a little out of place and when I met her, she has traveled so much that I felt like I connect with her and she urged me to join this project. And I would do anything for my favorite teacher. So my first interview was with a Marine, and it was terrifying especially being from another country. I didn't know much about the United States perspective on the world wars or world conflicts and it's has helped me so much. You know this foreign kids talking to the most American person you could find was really what pulled me into the military.

GOLDSTEIN: Was there anything you remember most about what he said to you that had the biggest impact?

RIPA: I could not have imagined that this man would ever open up to me. You know someone who is so obviously from a different place. And I think that that did it for me.

GOLDSTEIN: There's that stoicism of a particular generation that we've come to expect, whether they actually saw action, whether they were PWOs in some cases, they don't really necessarily want to open up about it. I don't know why they have, they probably their personal reasons for it, but have you run into that as well?

HATCH: You get every kind of veteran. Some of them actually just won't be interviewed. It's too painful, they don't want to talk about it. But as time goes along the World War II veterans have opened up for the most part, but they waited. I mean these are my parent’s generation. They're in their 90s and I think they want their families to know finally what they did because they never spoke to their own children; they're more likely to speak to their grandchildren. And then when we first started 14 years ago, Vietnam veterans might talk to you and they might not. And as we've gone along and the, you know, the veterans who’ve served in the Middle East have come back and been so warmly received, the Vietnam veterans are the first to welcome them. And I notice that they finally feel like, “Hey, me too, I can tell my story. It's safe now to do that and I'm proud of my service.”

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I mean now as someone who's a Marine yourself, can you recognize that? You're a young person, so is there a different feel for you or can you sort of understand where they were coming from?

RIPA: I'm still very much a newbie when it comes to the military, so I can't really speak out of experience. I do think there’s a certain image we're trying to uphold. Especially Marine Corps, you know, being professional at all times, you know, it's all about sharing our emotions or like making emotional decision. It’s about making the responsible decision because your Marines come first. So I think the heart is always part of the thought process. Maybe later on when it comes to the mission, the mission comes first, your Marines come first, and there's not always time to process the emotion behind it.

HATCH: You know not every veteran suffers from amazing trauma but all of them are affected by their time in the service. And we honor and respect that. We expect them to be affected by it. It's a big responsibility and many of them have seen things that we never even want to imagine, and some can talk about it and some can't. But even just sharing what they can share, I think Sophia would agree with me, helps them in some way. At least they know somebody else understands and honors them for their service and is there to support whatever healing they need to do.

RIPA: I think healing goes both ways. You know, for high school kids everything seems like the end of the world; and then you have this man talking about “would you mind seeing, you know, his fellow Marines die” and then, you know, then it gives a kid a different perspective and just brings them more down to earth. And I think it's a companionship at the end of the day.

GOLDSTEIN: Sophia, did the veterans heritage project lead you to join the military? How influential was it as far as that goes?

RIPA: Oh, I owe my military service to this project. Like I said before I didn't feel like I fit in very well. I was a very intense, passionate person in high school and a lot of kids aren’t like that in school. And I met these veterans, and especially the Marines, and I fell in love with their stories and their commitment, and their passion, and their patriotism, and they helped me fit in. They welcomed me. You always think like, “Oh, this foreigner, they wouldn't really accept the immigrants,” but no they embraced them wholeheartedly and I wanted to have my own story and honor them with my service. That's all I wanted to do ever since I heard their war stories.

Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.