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College students record histories of veterans

In the classroom, Katy Hansen is an adjunct English professor at Frederick Community College. At home, she's an Army wife, passionate about veterans services and showing respect to former military personnel.

She found a way last fall to bring the two together.

Hansen's classes have recorded the military experiences of five veterans for the past three semesters as part of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project and the Arizona-based Veterans Heritage Project. Groups of students are matched with a veteran, then interview and film the vet, transcribe the discussion and later present it to the class.

The stories are cataloged online by the Library of Congress and published in book form by the Veterans Heritage Project.

The project is a chance for students to fight preconceived notions of vets, appreciate unique personal experiences and speak to someone in person rather than over technology, Hansen said.

"The stereotype of veterans today is too focused on (post-traumatic stress disorder) ... rather than the contribution they make to society," she said.

FCC is the first community college in the country to partner with the Veterans Heritage Project, and Hansen called their involvement a chance for students to give back.

"Our veterans are part of our community," she said. "It's our way of doing community service."

This semester's interviewees included Navy veteran Dan Snider, and Al Amato, who was an Air Force staff sergeant working as a mechanic during World War II.

For freshman Makayla Rexroth, talking to Amato was a chance to interact with living history.

"It was really amazing to meet someone with all of their faculties" who served in World War II and "be able to sit at their feet and just ... glean everything I could from them," Rexroth said.

Other students said the experience helped them realize that anyone can have an interesting background story no matter how commonplace they look.

Amato, an FCC professor, was deployed to Egypt, Tunisia, Corsica and Italy for more than two years after enlisting in 1940. He was awarded the Soldier's Medal for helping to save five American soldiers from a burning plane.

Snider, who was a petty officer third class, was given a Purple Heart after shrapnel from a detonated improvised explosive device pierced his neck, 0.4 millimeters from his jugular vein, in Iraq. He now studies history at FCC and works in security at Best Buy.

Others interviewed this fall include Joseph Hischak, an Army veteran from Brunswick; Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Nulton, deployed to Oman until March 2014; and James Brown, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War.

For the veterans, sharing those personal histories can be cathartic. 

Snider said it is important for veterans to get their stories out because people tend to generalize veterans' experiences rather than have face-to-face conversations about their service.

It feels good to have his oral history recorded, Snider said, adding that it took him a while to be able to relate his near-death experience in Iraq.

Hansen plans to offer the project next semester, but printing veterans' stories in the physical copy of the Veterans Heritage Project may depend on whether she receives funding. It could cost the class up to $2,000 each year to help pay for publication, she said.

The group also hopes to eventually showcase the interviews on their own website in addition to the Library of Congress' online database.

"We're recording history," Hansen said. "It's that age-old idea of telling stories and passing stories down."

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