Veterans conference aims to pass military’s legacy along to tomorrow’s leaders
By JOE GROMELSKI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 4, 2015
WASHINGTON — The American Veterans Center, which is holding its annual conference and honors ceremony here this week, is best known for a couple of high-profile, nationally-televised events — the National Memorial Day Parade and "The Honors: A Salute to American Heroes."
But to AVC founder and president Jim Roberts, preserving history and passing it — and the values that veterans and military service represent — along to the next generation of military leaders is still at the core of his organization.
In panel discussions beginning Thursday at the U.S. Navy Memorial, more than 300 service academy cadets and midshipmen, students at military colleges, members of ROTC units and other civilian students will get a chance to meet and hear the stories of such people as Medal of Honor recipients Hershel Williams, Bruce Crandall and Melvin Morris; "Band of Brothers" commander Edward Shames, and "Doolittle Raider" Richard E. Cole.
"While the sessions are going on, we've got people who are videotaping oral histories all day long, morning to night, with the speakers and outstanding attendees," Roberts said. "That's an important part of what we do, preserve the legacies and then pass them along to these younger people, many of whom are going to be leaders in the military. But not only that, they'll be leaders after their military service in many other professions as well.
"It is more and more important for us to view this as a teaching experience, having the veterans talk about their philosophies of service and what they've gotten out of their military experience."
Roberts quotes recently retired Librarian of Congress James H. Billington as saying that human beings are hard-wired for stories. "We love stories," Roberts said. Putting conference speakers in front of young people “is the best way possible to transmit history and lessons and values, much more so than having films or audio clips or anything like that. (They) see and hear directly from the people, the speakers involved, and then being able to talk to them one-on-one afterwards, which they do. We have social events every night, and the cadets and midshipmen and the speakers will tell you (those) are among the most important aspects of this whole exercise — just being able to talk, in a social setting, with future officers on one hand and veterans on the other hand.
"We get lots and lots of notes from cadets and midshipmen afterwards, and they mention that that was a highlight for them. If you're talking there to Buzz Aldrin, it's one thing to see him on stage, but to talk to him personally kicks it up a whole other notch."
Beyond the conference and parade, Roberts said, "our goal is to double, triple, quadruple the audience we're reaching.” Some of the current efforts:
An oral history contest, in which high school students interview a veteran and produce a video package using Library of Congress guidelines.
A World War II curriculum for high schools.
Plans for a booklet called "Centuries of Integrity," with thumbnail sketches from American military history identifying each person "with a particular virtue associated with military service," Roberts said. "George Washington, courage. Or Ulysses S. Grant, tactical brilliance," and so forth.
Roberts said that AVC programs have reached "around a million" young people, between the conference, contests, Memorial Day Parade participants and a Memorial Day choral festival at the Kennedy Center. "Put all these together, and we're touching a lot of young people in some way, and we want to strengthen that bond, get more information to them, get them to have a greater appreciation of what it is to be an American and the role the military plays in a free society."
Roberts said he never gets tired of working on the conferences. "I've done 18 of them, and it never gets old to me."
2015 American Veterans Center honorees
The following will receive awards at Saturday's "Salute to American Heroes" gala in Washington, D.C.:
Audie Murphy Award, World War II: CWO4 Hershel “Woody” Williams, U.S. Marine Corps, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Audie Murphy Award, World War II: 761st Tank Battalion, U.S. Army, the first African American tankers to see combat in U.S. Army history; recipient of the Presidential Unit Citation with one Medal of Honor and 11 Silver Stars.
Raymond Davis Award, Korean War: Lt. General Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland, U.S. Air Force, ace pilot.
Joe Ronnie Hooper Award, Vietnam War: Col. Bruce P. Crandall, U.S. Army, recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor as a helicopter pilot during the Battle of Ia Drang.
Paul Ray Smith Award, Operation Iraqi Freedom: Lt. Jason Redman, U.S. Navy, SEAL with 21 years of service, Purple Heart recipient, author of The Trident, founder of the Combat Wounded Coalition.
Lt. Michael P. Murphy Award, Afghanistan: The Fallen Heroes of Operation Red Wings, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, saluting the fallen SEALs and Night Stalkers from the epic engagement in Afghanistan, 10 years ago.
The ‘American Spirit’ Citizenship Award: Dr. James H. Billington, 13th Librarian of Congress with 28 years of service, U.S. Army Veteran, esteemed international scholar.
Lilian K. Keil Award, recognizing women’s contributions to the military: Maj Jaspen Boothe, U.S. Army, Reservist, founder of Final Salute Inc., which provides housing support for homeless female veterans and their children.
Doolittle Tokyo Raiders “Wings of Valor” Award: Col. Buzz Aldrin, U.S. Air Force, Korean War veteran and fighter pilot, lunar module pilot on Apollo 11.
In a 2010 file photo, American Veterans Center President Jim Roberts presents the Audie Murphy Award to New York Yankees great Yogi Berra for his Navy service during World War II. Other ballplayers who served in the military include, left to right, Lou Brissie, Jerry Coleman and John “Mule” Miles.