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Students Learn America’s Living History

2/24/2016

Visiting Veterans Project forges bonds between students and veterans

As a first-year Seton Scholar, Owen Smith ’18 visited the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx as part of an orientation to learn about the nonprofits and charitable organizations nearby where they might devote their time and energy. It was a visit that would change his life.

At the VA Center, Mr. Smith was immediately captivated by the sense of living history. “Both my grandfathers served in the military, and I’m a history major, so I started asking them about their lives,” he says. Inspired by a vision of rewarding conversations between the veterans and his own generation, the Mount freshman founded the Visiting Veterans Project.

Mr. Smith and a few other students began making weekly trips to the VA Center, where they meet with the residents in a common area to play cards or video games together, or just engage in conversation. Right from the start, the response was enthusiastic.

The VA Center caters to residents from a mix of generations and with a variety of medical issues. Most are veterans of the Vietnam War, although some served in Desert Storm or Iraqi Freedom. There is even a World War II veteran in his 90s. “We don’t dwell on war stories with the vets because generally they don’t feel the need to share the experience,” says Mr. Smith. “But they are really up on current affairs, and many have interesting opinions on the news and politics.”

The average size of the group varies from about four to ten students. They began in the fall of 2015, with a goal of building a relationship with the VA Center. Next year they hope to involve more students who can make a regular commitment. Mr. Smith believes this won’t be too difficult: “Students taking FYE are looking for ways to get involved. We are also recruiting athletes who can join us every week during off season.”

The group has been exploring an idea with the VA Center’s staff who do art therapy and writing therapy with the residents. They believe the veterans might enjoy sharing their literary or artistic efforts with the student volunteers. “It’s still in the planning stages, but we’re very excited about that prospect,” says Mr. Smith.

Nick Maxwell, a recreation therapist at the VA Center, acts as liaison with the Visiting Veterans Project. “Vets like to engage with younger people, especially from outside,” he says. “Many of them are lonely, so that extra visit is really special. The vets like telling stories. Or they’ll talk about current events, adding their perspective of what they went through. There’s a lot of interaction, lots of talking and laughing. It’s all good for the vets, and good for the students, too.”

Daniel Opler, Associate Professor of History at the Mount, sees a parallel between Mr. Smith’s visits to veterans and the fundamental way that history is made, remembered, and passed down through generations. “Recorded history is collaboration between great events or processes and the people who witnessed them,” he says. “It can be recorded by journalists or historians charged with writing down events after they happen, or it can be told by those who lived through them. It’s oral history. The narrating of memories of large events that one has lived through—that give and take of someone asking, ‘what was it like?’ and listening to the answer—that’s fundamental to the recording of human history. And it’s what Owen is doing with the Visiting Veterans Project.”

Mr. Smith says he and his fellow students are more aware of how much America’s veterans have sacrificed for their country, and how much they still want to give. “I feel that Americans, especially students, could learn a lot from veterans. People from older generations have so much to offer, but no one ever asks them about what they’ve lived through. We ask. And we are making friends.”

And whether or not the students realize it, they are making history.

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