BURLESON, TX — “Our veterans are the reason we’re here today and still free,” Milton Gibson said. “Dale and I use two words to describe them: patriot and hero. Most of them will say, ‘Yeah I’m a patriot, but hero? I did what I was told to do for my country. I did my duty.’”
Something important happens when the future comes face-to-face with life’s battles won and lost: generations connect and history is preserved. On Memorial Day 2010, Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter announced the launching of a project called Operation Remember. The objective? To archive the personal accountings of local veterans and to make those histories available online and through an interactive kiosk at Veteran’s Memorial Park.
Milton, along with Dale Dexheimer, reached the frontline of Operation Remember at its inception and both are quick to say it is a service they are honored to perform. “We have a lot of people to thank,” Milton said. “The Burleson Heritage Foundation (BHF) for giving us the opportunity; the city of Burleson for supporting our efforts, St. Matthew Cumberland Presbyterian Church for generously allowing us to use their equipment and facilities; and, above all, the exceptional veterans who have allowed us to record their stories so that history will not be lost.”
Operation Remember evolved as a companion to the Congressionally mandated Veterans History Project (VHP). Ten years ago, VHP of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress began collecting, preserving and making accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans, including U.S. civilians who were actively involved in supporting war efforts. After a decade and with the help of thousands of organizational volunteers who requested to be VHP Partners, over 68,000 individual collections are now available at the Library of Congress and more than 7,000 of them are also accessible through the VHP Web site.
Dale serves on Burleson’s library board and volunteers at the BHF and Visitors Center. When he was asked to help with the VHP effort, he found the local process stalled by the lack of equipment and technological expertise. That discovery preceded the launching of Operation Remember and the Veteran’s Day Celebration on November 6, as the unveiling date of the new interactive kiosk. It also, thankfully, preceded Dale’s introduction to Milton and the emerging of their dynamic team.
Dale moved to Burleson in 1978 and Milton in 1972. Both are retired: Dale from Martin Sprocket & Gear and Milton first from Winn-Dixie and then from the Southland Corporation. Yet, for these two, life is anything but retiring. Since last April, they have recorded nearly 30 American war stories told by the veteran or by the veteran’s family. Dale arranges and conducts the interviews and Milton handles the camera and production work.
With an estimated 13,000 veterans in Johnson County, the project might seem endless for anyone other than this team. “What I see is that people need to get their stories documented or they will be lost,” Milton said. “My grandfather was in the Civil War and my father was born in 1893. When I was young, I remember taking a trip with my father to find an old log cabin where he might have lived as a child. When he pointed it out, I looked at my watch as much to say, ‘Are you about through?’ Kids think they have plenty of time, but as we get older, we realize it is time to get the stories told.”
Dale maintains a stack of “calling” cards and is always ready to complete another 3 x 5 index card with the name and information of a prospective veteran. On Wednesdays, he volunteers at BHF and Visitors Center and also uses the time to make calls. “Some people say no — maybe a third of those I’ve called. Sometimes they change their minds, and some don’t believe they have done anything,” he explained. “That’s when I assure them that if they have served, regardless of whether it was on the frontline or to cook or get the mail, their story is important.”
Veterans are interviewed on Fridays at St. Matthew Cumberland Presbyterian Church with the use of the church’s equipment. “The city is in the process of buying the appropriate equipment,” Dale explained. “Some of our prospects are in nursing homes so we want to be able to go to them. Also, not everyone can come during the week, so we need to be able to meet on Saturdays. “I begin by asking the questions listed in the Field Kit provided by the VHP, such as the veteran’s name, birth date, name of the conflict, highest rank and anyone present during the interview,” Dale explained. “Then, we have a little chat before so the veteran has an idea of how and where to begin. Sometimes, they will say they don’t want to talk about a certain time or experience,” Dale explained. “I tell them it is their story, so they are free to talk only about what they want. We never edit their stories. ”
Milton records directly to a laptop as well as a tape back-up and when the interview is complete, he makes a copy for the veteran, the city and the church. The city forwards a copy to the Library of Congress. “Anyone can record a veteran’s story for the VHP,” Milton said. “We’re providing a service to give a quality video and to make sure the whole process gets done.” So far, the majority of veterans interviewed for Operation Remember have been over the age of 60 and the conflict most represented is the Vietnam War. Remarkably, the united theme to their stories, including the toughest accounts, is that, overall, they enjoyed the time and consider it to be one of the best in their lives.
“Most don’t say anything about their decorations,” Dale said, “and while some have made peace with their experiences, others are still very emotional. It’s hard to say which story has had the most effect on me, because they are all veterans. Whether they enlisted or were drafted, they did their time. From the 18-year-old sailor who joined the Navy to see the world and never left the coast of Corpus Christi; to the man who was captured in Vietnam and spent years in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’; to the one who never saw battle but started a crucial gunnery school; to the young man six months out of Iraq with a purple heart, a damaged brain and postwar distress syndrome — all of their stories are interesting because all of them are personal.”
Written by Carolyn Wills.
Editor’s Note: For information about Operation Remember, please visit www.operationremember.org, call the Burleson City Secretary at (817) 426-9661 or e-mail [email protected]