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Election adds relevance to Society Veterans’ Project

High school students across Montana, who have been researching the effect of the Vietnam War on veterans and local communities in the 1960s found themselves caught up this year in a national election that brought those memories again into the headlines.

Michael Umphrey, director of the Montana Heritage Project administered by the Montana Historical Society, said students in 19 communities will spend countless hours talking with and recording the memories and experiences of Vietnam vets.

“Memories of the Vietnam War played a distinct role in this year’s presidential race,? Umphrey said. “Young people have witnessed what strong emotions and memories that time still evokes. They can bring special empathy and skill to interviews with Vietnam vets in their hometowns.?

In addition to the on-going veterans oral history project, Heritage Project schools involve students in community history research such as studying how community issues have changed over time, documenting historic buildings, indexing local newspapers to make local history more accessible.

All of the students’ research is placed in the Montana Historical Society Archives for the use of future generations. Project schools also give the results of their scholarship to their communities in programs, books and tours.

Last year Bigfork High School students presented their research to several hundred-community members who listened to veteran memories that revolved around “people, not about politics or policies.? Listening to those memories can involve students and teachers in emotions and outcomes they never considered, Umphrey said.

“Last year a veteran interviewed by students mentioned a friend of his killed in action. Somehow, the sister of that friend found the interview on the school’s website. She then wrote the local project teacher thanking the students for remembering her brother. She had been only five when her brother was killed,? Umphrey said.

As time passes and the Vietnam War is more openly discussed in historic terms such as election or current war coverage, Umphrey said, Vietnam veterans are becoming more willing to talk about their experiences.

Roundup student Miranda Breding said her interview with local Vietnam veteran mark Osweiler was a moving experience. “Always Mr. Osweiler brought me back to think. He left me with the sense of having received a gift. I can’t explain it, except that when someone shares their story with you, they give you a piece of themselves.?

Townsend Heritage Project student Leah McGuire said, “Many of our veterans realized that if they do not share their memories those memories and details could be lost in the great ocean of time.?

The Heritage Project has worked for 10 years to involve students in their community history with the overall goal of engaging students with the community members to help plan a better future for all.

Other projects have included such topics as agriculture, railroads, logging and how communities are adjusting to the changing personalities of their economic conditions.

Librarian of Congress James Billington, who has praised the project as an example for other states and traveled to Montana to support it, said what the students and communities are accomplishing together is much needed to heal our often-divided nation.

“It’s wonderful – I would say it’s even inspiring – to see how the young people who participate in this project become models for others while enriching their own lives and enriching the national memory,? Billington said.

New schools involved in the Heritage Project for the first time this year include Thompson Falls, Dillon, Fairfield, Centerville, Brady, Great Falls, and St. Labre. Those schools applied to join last year after seeing publicity on the veterans project. (See sidebar for information on joining the project.)
Other schools involved in the project are Libby, Whitefish, Big Fork, Corvallis, Chester, Simms, Townsend, White Sulphur Springs, Roundup, Ronan, and Harlowton.

“The teachers who organize and coordinate the local Heritage Project classes and the students who volunteer to take them need to be recognized for their dedication to Montana history and heritage,? Umphrey said. “They set an example of community service for all of us.?

For more information on the Project and its 10-year record of Montana community research, log on to or call 406-444-1759.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/05 at 01:38 PM






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