Arkansas Vietnam War Project Gathers Oral Histories From State Veterans

Feb 7, 2020

John Robinette, pictured here, is one of the veterans interviewed for the project. According to the collection, he served eleven and a half months in Vietnam
Credit Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

The Vietnam War book “The Things They Carried,” is the focus of the Central Arkansas Library System’s "NEA Big Read: CALS" program, with events slated to run between March 16 and  April 26. However, one project, the Arkansas Vietnam War Project, has for years collected the stories from veterans about their experiences.

KUAR’s Sarah Kellogg spoke with Brian Robertson, the manager for the research services division of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, which is a part of CALS, about the oral history project. Below is an excerpt of their conversation. You can listen to the entire interview at the end of the article.

Robertson: “We started the project. The Arkansas Vietnam War Project, a few years ago. We wanted to document and preserve information about Arkansas’s Vietnam War veterans and the impact that the war had on them. And so what we’ve been doing is going around, interviewing guys, collecting their stories. We’re also collecting photographs, letters, diaries…that sort of thing to kind of give a broader picture of their experiences."

KUAR: "And you mention this a little bit, but who are you talking to? Are you talking to those involved in combat, or other areas of the war? Are you talking to just men? Who are you trying to reach?"

"Really anybody that was involved in the war. I mean, our particular focus [is] guys that were in theater, that were actually there during the war, but we’ve interviewed guys from every branch: army, navy, marine corps, airforce. And it doesn’t…they could have been in a support role. These are not John Wayne stories that we’re necessarily looking for. But, the way I look at it is that everybody’s role was important. And everybody had a contribution and everybody has a story to tell. And one thing that I often tell guys that are kind of, maybe a little bit apprehensive about doing an interview, is ‘If you don’t tell your story, nobody else will.’"

"Why is it important to talk to these veterans and get their stories?"

Well, I think that, for a couple of reasons, I think that historically I think it’s important to understand the war and its impact on people. And particularly since we live in Arkansas obviously, we really want to learn what the war was like for Arkansans. And I’ve even done a couple of interviews with wives. That was interesting because they were married at the time, and then…the guy shipped off, to get that broader perspective. But I think also it’s important kind of more on a, for a lack of a better term, local level in the sense that these are family stories. And in a way, it’s kind of family history. There’s a big kick in the last several years about doing your genealogy with Ancestry.com and all of that kind of stuff, and I’ve had a lot of family members tell me, sons, daughters, grandchildren etc after the interview, because we always give an interview to the family, and they’ll say ‘I’m so glad you did this interview. If you hadn’t gotten this stories out of Dad, we wouldn’t never gotten them.' And just for those families to have that record that they may not have otherwise, I think is important."

"What do you hope interviewees gain from the experience?"

"I hope that they…well one I hope they understand or can learn that what they did is important and that they’re valued. And a lot of the, particularly with the Vietnam vets, they definitely weren’t treated the way that veterans are treated today. They had it a lot rougher and I would like to let these guys know, and women if I can find some, that their experiences are important and they deserve to be known."