Next Doors: Honoring While Learning

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Posted By on November 7, 2019

Veterans Heritage Project documents stories of heroes while enlightening young people

Ashley Durham was a sophomore at Cactus Shadows High School when she met a man by the name of Frank Lambert.

On the surface, you wouldn’t think they would click. After all, what would a 14-year-old high school student have to talk about with a Vietnam War veteran? But their interaction would open up worlds for both of them — an old world one of them had almost forgotten about, and a new world for the other that would provide an entirely new perspective on life.

Durham and Lambert had agreed to become part of the Veterans Heritage Project when they were introduced in 2010. The project was created with several goals in mind. The primary one was to provide students with an opportunity to interact with military veterans, document their stories and learn from their experiences. It was started by a teacher named Barbara Hatch as a way to enrich the students’ learning and broaden their interpersonal skills, and morphed into a nonprofit in 2009.

“What I find most compelling is that students seek to emulate the character of their veterans,” said Michelle DiMuro, executive director of Veterans Heritage Fund. “The veterans inspire integrity, reliability, leadership and teamwork. The students set goals, work hard and value service.”

To date, more than 2,000 veterans and more than 2,100 students have participated. In 2016 they started a speaker series where veterans are invited to speak to a classroom or school assembly, increasing the organization’s overall reach to more than 43,000 students since 2004.

With momentum on their side, VHP’s leaders are now focused on growth — although they need support from the community to be able to do it.

“Our goal is to become a national model, and to bring our curriculum to any school that wishes to start a chapter,” DiMuro said. “We have a waiting list of over 500 veterans who want to be interviewed. We have interest from schools across Arizona, and even in other states. Our alumni students want to start chapters at their colleges. We are fortunate to be piloting a program in Florida with two schools and a fabulous volunteer. The lessons we learn from the pilot are guiding our decisions on how to expand.”

And there are a few interesting side effects. First, by capturing the stories of military veterans, the Veterans Heritage Project actually began capturing history in a way that had never been done before. As the project grew, it began publishing the stories in a series of books, and eventually the interviews that were conducted would become part of the National Archives. And it gave students an opportunity to be part of something unusual in the high school world.

 “I specifically knew I’m not athletic, so sports were out of the question,” Durham said. “I was looking for an extracurricular activity that was different than the standard volunteer clubs. This one was more unique.”

Additionally, the program provides the veterans themselves an opportunity to reexamine experiences that they may not have forgotten, but might not have talked about for years.

Lambert’s military service was particularly noteworthy and distinguished. In Vietnam, he served as company commander in the 1st Cavalry Division, where he earned the Silver Star, Soldier’s Medal and two Purple Hearts. His executive officer (second in command), Mike Sprayberry, was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing Frank when he was severely injured in a firefight.

“For a veteran, it is a very cathartic experience, and it was the first time I had talked to anyone about it in 30 years,” Lambert said. “When you live it again during these interviews, it brings back memories. It brought back things I had forgotten for years that I had gone through — seeing it on paper brought everything alive again. Reliving the day I was wounded was emotional, to know how close you came to not making it.”

“For most of the students,” Durham said, “there’s an underlying desire to understand a bit more about the veterans’ experience, especially when they may have a family member who is a veteran. But that family member maybe doesn’t feel the innate desire to start talking about their experience. It’s a lot easier in a way to dive in and interview someone you don’t know. For something like 80 percent of the veterans in the program, it’s the first time telling their own story to their family, or even out loud in general. So it’s a special experience.”

The other side effect is that these young people and veterans, once connected, often stay connected into the future. Dunham ended up doing 11 profiles — she says she tagged along on many more interviews, just to listen and learn — and still keeps in touch with many of the people she interviewed, including Frank Lambert.

And the experiences they document help shape who the students become as they grow into adulthood and start their own lives and careers. Almost every student who gets involved ends up enrolling in college.

“If you look at Ashley, I met her as a sophomore, and now she’s graduated from ASU,” Lambert said of Durham, who works in the healthcare field today. “I think she has advanced faster than her peers partly because of this experience — it’s really good for these high school kids.”

Durham agreed. “Personal relationships are what VHP hammers in as their ‘product.’ They obviously sell the books that are done, but that’s not what they see as the final product. They see student and veteran relationship as the final product moving forward.

“I have always felt that VHP has solidified the idea that people are the most important thing, and you make time for the people who are most important to you,” she said. “It’s learning that you have a limited amount of time with these veterans — sadly, they don’t live forever — but the stories can live on.”

To learn more, go to veteransheritage.org.

Tom Evans

About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is a contributing editor of Frontdoors Media.