AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Willie King sat surrounded by a slew of memorabilia in the Auburn High School Library, his words giving life to the artifacts that represent his time of service to the nation.
"Over 40-something years to this day, I still only sleep about three hours a night at the most," said King, wearing a hat emblazoned with "Bronze Star-Heroism."
"I wake up and I drift back and get another hour. I wake up, and I drift back and get another hour. And it's been going on for 40-something odd years. It all had to do with the combat that I did and was a part of. It's different. Any time you hurt somebody like that, the moment, the second and the hour, you always remember that. It will never, ever leave you."
King was one of 62 Vietnam veterans whose stories will be told and permanently recorded. They were interviewed at Auburn High School Thursday and Friday as part of the school's annual Veterans History Project. For the project, 137 junior students in Blake Busbin's AP History class are recording veteran interviews, which will then be sent to Washington, D.C., to be stored at the Library of Congress.
"We're trying to help preserve the story of these veterans as well as allow the students to become historians and allow this history to be preserved for future generations," Busbin said.
Busbin said the interviews have proved mutually beneficial to veterans and students.
"For several veterans, they keep coming back each year," Busbin said. "This is an experience they absolutely love — being able to share these stories with students. For many of these Vietnam veterans, no one cared to hear their stories when they came back home, and this is an opportunity for us to say, 'thank you.'
"For the students, overwhelmingly for the past two years, this has been their favorite activity of the school year, and they had been asking, 'Why can't we do more of these?' So this is just an opportunity for us to also be involved in the community and show that as public educators, that we can interact with the community and preserve something for the public good, which is the history of these great men."
On Thursday, students Ruth Adams and Grace Wang held their recorder out to veteran Terry Raycraft, who served as a medic in the Vietnam War, and asked him to state his name for the record.
Raycraft proceeded to talk about being assigned to jungle school training before being sent overseas, and about another man named Terry who trained him before Raycraft was deployed.
"So (Terry) went to Vietnam, and I remember, I came to work one day and the corpsmen were all around the nurses' station," Raycraft said. He paused, tears welling in his eyes. "The nurse was reading a letter. She was crying.
"Well, Terry had died. He lasted one week in Vietnam. So that starts eating on you a little bit."
Witnessing the sentiments associated with the veterans' stories was one aspect of the project that made a war they had only read about in books or online more real for students throughout the interview process.
"I've heard about the PowerPoints and seen how many died, how many were wounded," said student Solomon Balaam-Reed. "But hearing the story of even just one veteran, it really changes you because it puts a face on a big event in American history."
Balaam-Reed's classmate and fellow interviewer, Jack McGowin, agreed.
"It gave me a personal connection — it showed us what it was really like for someone to go to the war, then to come back," McGowin said. "I got to witness the emotions of that."
Joshua McLeod, who interviewed King, said he has enjoyed playing a hand in preserving history through the project.
"I think it's really cool," he said. "I'm definitely a big history nut, so I was very excited about coming into this and getting to interview a veteran and getting to be a part of recording history. That's definitely a fun experience for me."
While students feel accomplished in helping keep history present, veterans said that having their stories heard is significant, especially for the younger generation.
"I'm a Vietnam veteran, and I'm interested in young people having an understanding of what that was all about," said veteran Billy Hall. "These young men — my service was over before they were born. They could be my grandchildren. I don't have any children, so if I can help them have an understanding of what that was all about, I think it's important."
And as King said there are aspects of his war experiences that his memory will never be able shake, making sure other parts are never forgotten is critical.
"Somebody got to know some information about the war, and not just coming from the people that were designated to tell it," King said. "I was just your average soldier. I got caught up in the conflict, and I figure my part and my knowledge and my experience is just as good as anybody else's. The story needs to be told."
Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/
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