Retired Col. Greg Lowe, retired Col. Mick Devine, his son, Sean, and Carol Mays Dillard sat in the Owsley Library at Western Kentucky University's Augenstein Alumni Center on Thursday talking about being students at WKU.
They talked about Lowe and Devine's time in the Company B Third Regiment Pershing Rifles, a military fraternal organization. They were national champions of the Illinois International Drill Meet in 1963. They performed at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in 1962.
They laughed and talked about the good things about being in the U.S. Army, each just happy to be in the company of someone who understood what they went through. Lowe and Devine fought in the Vietnam War. Lowe was there from June 1970 to June 1971. Devine did two tours of duty, from December 1965 to January 1967 and from June 1969 to July 1970. They were saving some of their war stories for their interview with the Witness to War project.
Witness to War gets veterans together to do interviews about their service for a day or two. Five Vietnam veterans told their stories on Thursday and five more were scheduled for Friday. The Atlanta nonprofit organization talks to veterans from all wars, including World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the war on terror. Tom Beaty started Witness to War in 2002 at the same time he started his consulting firm, Insight Sourcing Group, which funds the project. Beaty also runs Spend HQ, a technology center.
"We do that for every battle for every war," said Witness to War interviewer Martin Madert. "It's a work in progress. We're just trying to get these stories on tape while they're with us."
There are about 1,700 interviews in the archives, which are located at witnesstowar.org. There are 30 minute to five hour interviews of veterans sharing their stories, Madert said. The website has more than 3,000 video clips.
"There weren't a lot of World War I veterans at the start of the project. I'm sure they had some stories. There was a lack of interest. Due to that we have World War I veterans who have stories that are now inaccessible," he said. "By doing this now, we're trying to alleviate that blow. We record their stories no matter how mundane they think they might be. It's important for families to get the context of history in a formal manner."
Madert likes to talk about the wars in general, what the veterans took with them and how they got in the military.
"Vietnam volunteers listed on their own volition. Only 1/4 were drafted. I talk about what the war experience did to them, positively or negatively," he said. "We're trying to capture things history books don't cover in extensive detail. It's about what a 19, 20, 21 year old put in a dangerous situation would do."
Getting the veterans to open up took some time, Madert said.
"It takes some warming up because veterans over history have not spoken much about their service to anyone," he said. "World War II veterans started businesses, got jobs and went back to daily life. Vietnam veterans were the same way. No one wanted to listen to military stories."
Now there is a revitalization of wanting to hear these stories, Madert said.
"With them goes decades of history. They answered the call of the country," he said. "They did their service. In some cases they weren't treated as fairly as they should have been."
Even the Veterans Administration wasn't welcoming to the Vietnam veterans, who suffered from ailments from Agent Orange exposure, Madert said.
"I can go on for days about guys with 100 percent disabilities," he said. "It took them 50 years and they're finally getting their full benefits."
Vietnam veterans are leading the way to getting things done, Madert said.
"They want to make sure no veterans coming home get treated like they were treated when they came home," he said. "They're brave."
Participating in the project seemed natural for Lowe, who lives in Cecilia and graduated from WKU in 1968. He made contact with a group of nine other graduates of WKU's ROTC to participate in Witness to War.
It's the 100th anniversary of ROTC in the United States. The Commanding General of Cadet Command of the United States Army wanted college presidents to help (commemorate it)," he said. "We can share on the website and Library of Congress so anybody researching can see what our experiences are."
The project is only the first of many activities planned. Another is a color guard for a football game in the fall.
Devine found participating in Witness to War to be a good experience.
"I think it's really good. It's good for my spirits," he said. "Who knows how much time we have?"
Wondering about life and death situations was something the men did on a daily basis during the Vietnam War. It wasn't easy on the families either.
"We didn't have email or Skype," said Dillard, whose husband, former Capt. Ron Dillard, a 1967 WKU graduate who was in Vietnam from October 1968 to October 1969, was being interviewed. "You didn't know if you'd see these guys."
A lot of the infantry second lieutenants didn't make it back, Lowe said.
"It was a terrible time," Dillard said. "All you heard on the news was Vietnam."
Helicopters would be shot down or crashed and they and their pilots would sometimes never be found, Devine said.
"You never knew what happened to them," he said.
Devine, who lives in Franklin, Tenn., and graduated from WKU in 1965, said he spent a lot of his second tour flying in helicopters.
"It wasn't nearly the level of intensity as the first time around," he said.
Dillard, who lives in Lebanon, said she heard stories from her husband on the drive to Bowling Green that she had never heard in the entire time they've been married.
"There's some things people wouldn't be interested in, so why talk about it?" Devine asked. "Even then you have to be careful. You don't want to come off as bragging."
Devine said he has read about soldiers on their sixth or seventh tour who have families. It was hard enough for him to leave his family behind during his two tours.
"They persevere and succeed," he said. "My hat's off to them."
– Follow features reporter Alyssa Harvey @bgdnfeatures or visit bgdailynews.com.