HONORING THOSE WHO SERVE: Project preserves veteran memories for the future

- Many brave men and women have served our country during times of war, and not everyone can understand the sacrifices made by our nation's veterans.

Students across Arizona, however, are taking part in a project called the "Veterans Heritage Project", which aims to collect stories from veterans that the rest of us can read, and never forget.

"I served with the United States Marine Corps in 1968 and 1969 in Vietnam," said Rick Romley. Many people in Arizona may remember Romley for his time as Maricopa County's County Attorney, but Romley also served in the Armed Forces.

Romley said his life was first shaped by his time in Vietnam.

"We were doing a sweeping operation right outside of Marble Mountain," said Romley, recounting the time when his life was changed forever.

On that fateful day, Romley stepped on a booby trap.

"They call them IEDs now," said Romley. "Booby trap is probably more descriptive."

Romley was seriously hurt by that booby trap, having suffered two severed arteries, multiple skin lacerations, and broken bones.

"I was pretty much awake the whole time," said Romley. "I remember going through the air, I hit the ground and that's when the pain started. It was really bad."

Romley spent his last year in the Marine Corps hospitalized. Romley said he was not expected to live, but Romley defied the odds.

"I was very, very close to giving up," said Romley. "And then, I remember they brought in another Marine and crying. Couldn't take the pain. He just wanted to die and here I am thinking the very same thing."

Romley said he started talking to the soldier, telling him that it gets easier, and asked him to not give up.

"For some reason, that was a real pivotal time in my life," said Romley. "That gave me some strength that I never knew I had. I guess it's because of you love for your fellow soldier."

Romley eventually returned to Arizona, and the rest is history. For him, the pain now comes from rememberin those who never made it back home from Vietnam.

That includes Romley's best friend.

"Every memorial day I'm usually the MC at the National Cemetery, but I still make time the day before or later that evening," said Romley. "I go out to the Arizona Vietnam Memorial for my dear friend. I take flowers and put them out there."

Romley said he does not tell his story too often, simply saying he doesn't talk about himself often. He did, however, share his story with a student that is taking part in the Veterans Heritage Project.

"I just think it's just an extraordinary project," said Romley.

According to Barbara Hatch, who founded the Veterans Heritage Project, the project gives students the opportunity to learn history first hand, from someone who lived it. After veterans are interviewed by students, what they learned goes into a book that ends up in the Library of Congress.

"They have over a hundred thousand narratives they have put in the Library, and we are the single biggest contributor to that," said Hatch.

Hatch, who used to teach High School, said the project began with a movie.

"A kid came in and said, 'Is that movie real?'" said Hatch, referring to the 1998 war epic Saving Private Ryan.

"The beach scene, from everything I have read, seems pretty accurate," said Hatch, referring to the D-Day beach landing scene in the movie. "But Phoenix is a big place. Let's see if we can find some Normandy vets."

The program grew from there. In 2005, students at Cactus Shadow High School in Cave Creek published their first book, which is filled with experiences Veterans had never shared before. The interviews were also recorded, so family members could keep a copy on DVD.

The project also recorded Pat Little-Upah's story. She signed up for a student nurse program in 1965, the last year of which was paid for by the Army. After graduation, she volunteered fro Vietnam, and was assigned to the 93rd Evac Hospital. She said it was a quiet posting, until one evening.

"One evening, Tet started," said Little-Upah, referring to the 1968 Tet Offensive that caught American forces by surprise.

"Not only was there a lot of weapons firing, a lot of noise and chao,s they had hit an ammunition dump," said Little-Upah.

The casualties then started to come in.

"Started working 16 hours for about a week or so, then 12 hour shifts. It was just a very intense time," said Little-Upah. "An eye opener for a young Nurse who was like, 'wow, did I sign up for this?'"

Little-Upah's military service did not end with Vietnam. Years later, in 1991, Little-Upah served in Desert Storm.

"Desert Storm was a very short war," said Little-Upah. "It was a very intense war, and it was a scary war."

Little-Upah's story was published in the 2009 edition of the Veterans Heritage Project. This year, Little-Upah spoke to students working on this year's edition at Cactus Shadow. Also at the school was Romley, whose story was published in the same year as Little-Upah's.

Students at the school recounted their stories of interviewing veterans, including one student who became the first to interview a gold star wife.

"She was avoiding the subject on losing her husband [in Afghanistan] for quite a while," said Melissa Satran. "She talked for 20 minutes, and there was a lot of tears shed after that 20 minutes."

There are now 20 schools statewide that take part in the project, including the Paradise Valley and Glendale Community Colleges. According to Hatch, the annual edition costs about $15,000 to publish, with most of the cost being offset by donated tax credits.

No public funding goes into the project, according to Hatch.

On April 9, this year's edition will be presented to veterans in a ceremony at ASU West.

To learn more about the project, click here.

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