Never Forget: Preserving War Stories One Vet At A Time

Nov 11, 2015

People across the nation are collecting stories from America’s military veterans, including a group in Rochelle. Earlier this fall, Unity Hospice of Western Illinois interviewed veterans of several wars.

Dixon Montgomery talks to volunteers at Unity Hospice of Western Illinois about his time in Vietnam.
Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ

Dixon Montgomery has a powerful story to tell.

The 66-year-old from Rochelle enlisted in the Navy when he was 18. He served as a Tank Gunner’s mate in Chu Lai during the Vietnam War. Montgomery was awarded with purple hearts for his service.

However, his time in Vietnam was cut short by a life-changing experience.

Montgomery was injured during combat and became permanently blind at age 20.

“It was like two days before I woke up conscious enough to be told that they had to enucleate both of my eyes," Montgomery said.

He was transported to Walter Reed Hospital with others in similar situations. Even with the loss of vision, his spirits were still high. 

“There was one guy in that hospital unit who was very bitter, screaming and yelling at the nurses. I knew that wasn’t me; that's not what I wanted to be. So I just knew I had to continue forward and hope for the best," Montgomery said.

Montgomery is one of several veterans able to share their stories because of a local effort.

Unity Hospice of Western Illinois has offices in the Midwest that conduct interviews about war experiences. They originally filmed interviews and collected war relics from patients, but recently decided to expand the project.

Jenna Matzer ponders her next question for veteran Dixon Montgomery.
Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ

Brenda McGarvey is the Director of Program Development for Unity Hospice. She says they wanted the program to be more inclusive.

“We’re going to invite all of the community in, and tell all of the community, ‘Not only are we dedicated to educating, but we’re dedicated to honor every veteran in our community.’ So that’s what motivated us to do it. We wanted to do it with more than just words, but with action," McGarvey said.

Volunteers and staff members schedule dates and times to record stories of willing participants. They conduct interviews in St. Louis, Rochelle, Elgin, and other cities in the region.

Montgomery received recognition for his service after his interview. Unity Hospice arranged active duty servicemen to award him with an American Flag.

Unity Hospice is a bridge for a national program called Veteran’s History Project. The project was established by U.S. Congress in 2000 and signed into law the same year.

The Library of Congress collects recorded interviews and original documents, such as photographs, diaries, and maps. Experiences can date back to World War One, or even stem from the Iraq War.

Materials are processed and made public within a few months. People can see them online or at the American Folklife Center in Washington D.C.

Sergeants Lucas Jansson and Daniel Anderson present a flag to Dixon Montgomery to honor his service in Vietnam.
Credit Jessie Schlacks / WNIJ

Bob Patrick is the Director of the Veteran’s History Project at the Library of Congress. Patrick says the project can have a lasting impact on veterans and their families.

“Family members are often, kind of left with their mouths open saying, ‘We haven’t heard this before.’ And how much they appreciate that they have it, can make it a part of the family’s history, and we’ve often found in many cases these interviews are even played at memorial services for veterans," Patrick said.

Patrick says history should be told from another perspective than a textbook. Young people can create an intergenerational connection from hearing direct human experience.

“One of the most magic things you can do is have an 18-year-old, boy or girl, sit down and talk to a veteran, and say, ‘What were you doing when you were 18 years old?’ “

Patrick says there are nearly one-hundred-thousand submissions so far. Participation from volunteers like Unity Hospice are keeping the project alive.

30-20-10 Rule

Veteran's History Project ask that submissions meet at least one of the requirements to be accepted:

  • 30 minutes is the minimum length required for recorded interviews.
  • 20 pages is the minimum number of pages required for memoirs, diaries or journals.
  • 10 is the minimum number of original photographs, letters, maps or pieces of artwork required and the minimum number of pages required for military documents.