Honoring Our Marin Veterans Project Honored by Congresswoman Woolsey
Nicholas Elsbree, founder of Honoring Our Marin Veterans, a veteran oral history project, works in partnership with Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, 6th District, and the Library of Congress Veteran History Project, to preserve the oral histories of Marin County Veterans. On June 2, 2012, Elsbree was honored by Congresswoman Woolsey at the Petaluma History Museum for his efforts on behalf of Marin Veterans. Elsbree also presented the following speech regarding the project:
My name is Nick Elsbree and I am the founder of the Honoring Our Marin Veterans Oral History Project. My project started out as a few veteran interviews and a short PowerPoint presentation for a local Veterans Day celebration. I discovered during my research that, while many Marin County veterans had been interviewed in the past, few received copies of their interviews. In addition, the interviews were not stored permanently, and nothing was available on the internet. As a result, I expanded my project, created a website to share all of the interviews, and made arrangements with the Marin History Museum to archive and store all interviews. All videotaped interviews are sent to the Library of Congress through a generous partnership with Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. Last summer, 70 interviews were completed with the help of 22 Marin County high school students.
I have been fortunate to interview veterans from World War II to the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have been contacted by veterans and family members across the country that discovered my site. Many were looking for more information on particular units, others were looking for lost friends, and the families just wanted to express their gratitude for finally hearing their fathers’ military stories. As a result of this project, I have learned the importance of duty, sacrifice, and patriotism. More importantly, I grew to understand what true courage and valor mean. While many of the veterans indicated that they joined the military out of a sense of duty and obligation, all of the veterans noted that they fought to protect their fellow soldiers and they just wanted to get everyone home safe. More than anything, I learned that there is a strong sense of brotherhood and pride in all veterans and their stories should be celebrated and shared for future generations.
Although I was moved by most of my interviews, a few stand out in my memory. One veteran of World War II, a Colonel in the Marines, told of his experiences creeping and crawling across the Pacific. In the early invasions in the Pacific, the military had to rely on outdated maps and they were unprepared for the difficult terrain. For the invasion of Iwo Jima, the Marines practiced for weeks. Despite this practice, nobody was really prepared for the rocky, volcanic island, the tough Japanese defense, and the large amount of casualties. In other World War II interviews, I learned of the extreme weather conditions and lack of food and clothing in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge until the war in Europe ended. I also heard an account from a shell-hole reporter about the first discovery of a Nazi concentration camp. Unfortunately, the U.S. soldiers were too late. What these men discovered were freshly shot emaciated bodies, a crematorium filled with partially burned bodies, and stacks of corpses. This soldier vowed to remember what he saw and he hopes that others will learn and remember about World War II. In another WWII interview, I was surprised to learn about the positive treatment of American Jewish soldiers that were POWs in Germany. Apparently, Jewish POWs were treated like all other POWs, were fed kosher meals, and even allowed to practice their faith.
My Vietnam interviews were all very moving. In contrast to earlier wars, every Vietnam veteran, even the career military officers, felt that their service was not valued by Americans. I learned about the Beach Jumpers that created diversions, so the Marines could land safely elsewhere. Their job was to scare the be-Jesus out of the Viet Cong. I also heard first- hand accounts from helicopter door gunners whose life expectancy was 20 seconds in combat. Several gunners flew over 200 combat assault and rescue missions. These gunners all had a common bond and were willing to live and die by the person flying next to them.
My most memorable interview, however, was of a celestial navigator during Vietnam. Although this man did not fight on the front line, his first day in Vietnam involved stretcher duty. He unloaded wounded all day and it was his first experience with death. During this veteran’s 8 years in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange on a regular basis. He was assured that this exposure was harmless. A few years after his release from service, this veteran was diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. When this veteran went to the VA to talk about his benefits and care, he was told that his cancer was not one of the pre-approved cancers relating to Agent Orange exposure. This veteran finally found a Dr to treat him and he underwent 2 simultaneous experimental treatments. He became blind, was unable to walk and lost almost all of his senses. Despite these treatments, his cancer was still present. This veteran, however, never gave up. Finally, after the removal of over 100 lymph nodes, his cancer was gone. His sight and ability to walk returned, as did most of his senses. Today he is still in remission and thankful to be alive. The lessons he learned in Vietnam gave him the courage to fight his cancer and made him into the man he is today. This veteran does not bear a grudge against the military and is a true example of courage and valor. I will remember this man’s story for my entire life and I am proud to have met him. I dedicate my project to this veteran and all others like him. Every veteran has a story to tell, and their service should be celebrated, honored and preserved for future generations.