VA’s oral history program gives vets a chance to tell their stories

Written by Eric on March 22, 2016 in: Uncategorized |

Ed Tick, founder of Soldier’s Heart, argues (persuasively, in my opinion) that America has failed its veterans. Not just the government – all of us.

Soldiers should only be asked to fight in just wars to protect our country, he says. And since they are being asked to kill, there should be social rituals to protect them emotionally before they do. And when they return home, there should be purification ceremonies.

“Countless Americans who served in our politically and economically motivated wars feel broken because they betrayed the warrior’s purpose and code, because the war was not unquestionably and purely defensive, because society and the government refused their tending tasks and judged and blamed veterans for their psychological problems afterward, and because both government and citizenry refuted collective responsibility,” Tick wrote in his newest book, Warrior’s Return: Restoring the soul after war.

After the war, vets feel isolated. They don’t talk about what they did (or didn’t do) because they feel they’ve violated our moral code. And we don’t ask them what they did (or didn’t do) because we’re afraid of what we might learn.

In other cultures, though, warriors are celebrated for what they have been through, which makes it easier for them to feel accepted back into society.

That’s particularly true among the Native Americans of the Great Plains, who were often at war with their neighbors and later with federal troops. The entire tribe felt a collective responsibility to reach out to their warriors, Frank Fools Crow, ceremonial chief of the Lakota Sioux, told author Thomas Mails in the mid-1970s.

“So many who went war came home wounded and crippled,” he said. “Others were physically well, yet never mentally the same again. A person cannot return easily to normal life once he has been in that kind of a war.

“The elderly people of those days understood this,” Fools Crow added. “They knew very well what it was like to return home after fighting other Indian tribes and whites.  So as the veterans returned back to Pine Ridge (S.D.), the elders and other religious leaders did what they could to restore and renew them. They gave the veterans sweatbaths, which cleansed and purified their bodies and souls; the best food available; and they talked with them for days on end.”

To some extent, that’s what the VA is doing through a fascinating pilot program spearheaded in Madison, Wis., by a poet and counselor, Thor Ringler.

Essentially, counselors at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison realized that they really didn’t have the time to get to know their patients, so Ringler began interviewing vets who were willing to participate and producing oral histories to be included as part of their medical records.

“I first started realizing how important stories are to vets when I was an intern at the Vet Center,” Ringler told me. “They do a pretty thorough military history, and I came to realize that those stories were really important for me to be able to learn about the vet experience. I learned so much from those little histories.

“Then when the grant became available (from the VHA Office of Patient-Centered Care and Cultural Transformation), I realized it would be a tremendous opportunity to tell those stories in an honest way,” he added.

The program, called “My Life, My Story, began in 2013. Since then, Ringler and a group of 20 or so volunteers have interviewed nearly 1,000 vets about their military experiences. They write up the interviews, which generally take about an hour, and then read them back to the vets to make sure they are an accurate and honest reflection.

“It’s a moving experience for a lot of vets to hear their own stories read back to them, but it’s also a humbling experience for me,” said Ringler.

One guiding principle is that interviewers don’t probe issues that vets are unwilling to discuss, but Ringler doubts that a lot is held back.

“There’s more honesty than I would have ever guessed,” he said. “People talk about their relationship things, and they admit to being part of their own problems and accepting their sadness about the things that happened. I don’t think people tell me everything, but they tell me as much as they trust my willingness to be a non-judgmental force.”

In addition to being a part of the medical record, copies are made for the vets’ families and friends. And some oral histories are also posted on the hospital’s Facebook page: .

Recently, the “My Life, My Story” program has expanded to six other sites across the VA: Ashville, N.C.; Bronx, N.Y.; Iowa City, Iowa; Reno, Nev.; Topeka, Kan.; and White River Junction , Vt.

“Veteran stories, when skillfully elicited and carefully crafted, give providers an opportunity to know their patients better, without impinging on their time,” Ringler and four co-authors wrote last year in  the “Federal Practitioner.”  “For veterans, the experience of being interviewed and the knowledge that their story will be shared with providers is an important recognition that they matter and have a voice in their health care.”

Coming up in our next blog will be the painful story that one vet shared with the VA and how it felt to make a painful experience public.





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