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In Their Words

In Their Words

Since 2010, the UCF history department has been collecting stories of veterans living in the Central Florida area. Here is part of the rich legacy they’re preserving.

Fall 2017 | By Laura J. Cole

The Department of Veteran Affairs reports that more than 1.5 million veterans live in  Florida, making it the third largest veteran population in the nation, following California and Texas.

It’s a big number, but one that Barbara Gannon, an associate professor of history, sees as a big opportunity. Since 2011, she has been in charge of the UCF Community Veterans History Project, which records stories of Central Florida veterans. So far, they have recorded nearly 600 stories from veterans in every branch of the military, spanning from World War II to the Iraq War.

“We feel that listening to veterans’ stories is a way to show we appreciate them,” says Gannon, an Army veteran. “The effect on students who don’t know anything about or have any personal connection with the military is amazing. It really opens their eyes to a world they know nothing about.”

And sharing their stories — experiences that are often so removed from most civilians’ — is the driving force behind the program, which is an offspring of the national Veterans History Project. Launched in 2000 by the Library of Congress, the national project is focused on collecting, preserving and making accessible “the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”

The national program came to UCF in the fall of 2010. Gannon, who specializes in military history, oral history and memory studies, was hired to oversee the interdisciplinary project.

Each semester, Gannon offer an oral history workshop, teaching students how to conduct interviews properly; how to research the branches of the military, the missions, the wars, even military language to prepare themselves; and how to conduct mock interviews to prepare the veterans.

“We ask questions and allow the veteran to tell his or her story,” says John Grande, a graduate history student and former Marine.

“Each story is so important for its own reason,” says Tiffany Rivera, who oversees the project’s outreach. “Many times, veterans don’t realize the importance themselves until they stop and think about it and share their experience with someone else.”

“Many times, veterans don’t realize the importance [of their stories] themselves until they stop and think about it and share their experience with someone else.”
Tiffany Rivera, assistant director of educational and training programs

The reality is that there are so many stories to collect — a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Students and staff are only able to collect and record so many.

“You can’t tell a 95-year-old World War II veteran to wait,” Gannon says. “Vietnam veterans are aging. We have an entire generation of veterans, including veterans of our 21st-century wars, who have come home with stories to share. We need to hear them. We always have more work to do here.”

To put it in perspective, there are 1,300 student veterans at UCF alone. “We wouldn’t be able to get through all of our student veterans, but we like to think about partnerships as our force multiplier effect, which is a good military term,” Gannon says.

To reach more veterans, UCF partners with volunteers in places such as the Village on the Green senior community in Longwood and the Learning Institute for Elders (LIFE) at UCF to implement peer-to-peer programs. “We trained the volunteers the same way that we teach oral history workshops here on campus,” Rivera says. “They did the mock interviews and were able to practice and become comfortable, but they also were able to relate to their veterans in a different way than our students.” Those partnerships have resulted in 50 interviews.

All of the interviews recorded so far are available through the UCF Special Collections website. We selected five interviews from the collection, so you can see for yourself the kind of work Gannon and her students have done and learn why these stories are so powerful — and such a valuable part of our nation’s history.

*Original interviews have been edited for length and clarity, but we opted to maintain the original voice of the interviewees. As such, transcripts may include language and situations that may be inappropriate for some audiences.

UCF Veteran - Jose Belen

Specialist Jose Belen
U.S. Army
Served: 3 years
War: Iraq

On His First Experience in Iraq
“I remember as clear as day crossing over [from Kuwait to Iraq] and chief giving the order, ‘Lock and load that .50-caliber machine gun.’ No safety on it. And I just remember, immediately, a gang of kids running over toward our vehicles, and the order was if they were armed or posed a threat, I had to kill them. That was the grim reality.”

On Good Memories
“There were some good times because we did really try to help the people and reconstruct neighborhoods and things of that nature. There would be times that we would get bags of candy or care packages from home and instead of keeping them for ourselves, we’d distribute them to the children. I remember we got some soccer balls and gave them to the kids. Those were the positive memories. We cared. I cared for those people.”

On Losing His Best Friend
“On December 22, 2003, we got hit with an IED, and it took the life of my best friend Stuart Moore as well as our lieutenant, Matthew Saltz. That’s a story that’s taken me years to tell without getting emotional, but now I am able to look back on it and say as long as we are able to keep these memories of these guys alive, then they didn’t die in vain.”

On Fighting
“There’s something that happens out in the battlefield, it’s kind of primal. A warrior spirit gets awoken, and if you’re given that, then you have no fear of combat.”

On Talking to Family While at War
“I purposely didn’t call home sometimes because of all the stuff I was engaged in. I would lie to my mom, and that was hard. I’d be just finished coming back from some crazy op or ambush, sitting there covered in blood, all messed up, and she’d ask how I’m doing. ‘I’m fine.’ ‘Did you see combat?’ ‘No, I’m in an office.’ I kind of shied away from calling home a lot because where I’m at, they have no idea.”

On Coming Home
“There was nothing left, man. I was a shell of who I was before. I’ve battled suicide because of PTSD the entire time [I’ve been back]. People need to realize that we have the war that we fight over there, but we have an internal fight, a mental one essentially when we come home.”

On Life After the Military
“I’ve given my life to speaking, to bringing awareness to PTSD, to hopefully bringing the suicide numbers down to zero one day. If no one speaks up on a major scale, no one is going to hear us.”

UCF Veteran - Martha (Sue Hernandez Noe) Blair

Yeoman Martha (Sue Hernandez Noe) Blair
U.S. Navy
Served: 16 years
War: Vietnam

On Why She Enlisted in the Navy
“There was no real conscious thought about enlisting — I just did it. I really wanted to go into the Marine Corps, but I didn’t like their cover [a military term for hat] and I looked terrible in green, so I joined the Navy.”

On Expectations
“I wanted to learn something that was outside of what I grew up with. I had never been outside of the state of Texas. Going from there to boot camp to my first command — airplanes, helicopters, jets, men, noise, bombs — it was a learning experience. And I embraced it.”

On Training
“My first week, we had to learn about marching, how to dress, how to fold our clothes, make the beds, all the little important things. The big thing they wanted was to break us down. They wanted us to learn to work with everyone as a team, to depend on each other, and to learn to speak military and understand military. That first week was very intense.”

On Being Among the First Women in the Military
“It was hard, very hard. The men did not want us there. I’m not saying they were abusive — they weren’t. Once they realized we were good guys, and that we could not only take it but dish it out, the relationships with the men in my unit improved and we became very good friends. But it was a rough haul.”

On Being Pregnant in the Military
“They didn’t have maternity uniforms for my first child, and they didn’t really know what to do with us. You had 30 days from the day you had the baby to be back at work, in uniform, at weight. We couldn’t let being pregnant interfere with what we did, our jobs. I was at work for all three of my children when I went into labor.”

On Returning Home for the First Time
“I was afraid to get up and get something to drink without permission. For eight weeks, I had someone telling me what to do every second, and now I didn’t. Being home seemed foreign. All of a sudden, my brother didn’t understand me. My friends thought I was a little strange. That was an adjustment for me, realizing we weren’t the same anymore. I had changed.”

On Her Son Entering the Military
“My oldest son was in the Marine Corps. When he joined, I was like, ‘OK, bye, see ya!’ My second child went to a civilian college, and I was a snot-nosed mess. The Marine Corps I understood. College I didn’t, and that was traumatic for me.”

On Breaking the Concrete Ceiling
“There are still glass ceilings, but they’re easier to break. That’s why they’re called glass ceilings. We hit the concrete, and it wasn’t easy to break, but many of us managed to put a lot of cracks in it.”

UCF Veteran - Robert Glasgow

Corporal Robert Glasgow
U.S. Marine Corps
Served: 4 years
War: Iraq

On Drill Instructors
“They were the first and last men I will ever fear.”

On September 11
“Sergeant came out and said the two towers were taken out. I used to live in New York. I thought it was a joke. Later that night, they showed us a video of the twin towers and a plane slamming into them one after the other. They said, ‘This is why we’re going to war. Oorah.’ Everyone was like, ‘Oorah.’ I was like, ‘Shit. We’re going to war.’ ”

On a Typical Day
“Sleep, get up, get your gear, have breakfast, look around, change out the watches, look at people, try to win hearts and minds even though we knew we weren’t doing anything good, and occasionally get shot at, wait for bigger orders or something else to do.”

On the Most Memorable Day in Iraq
“A day that was particularly memorable was the third day on the assault on Fallujah. We had tanks on point flanking light armored reconnaissance (LAR) assets, a platoon of tracks [tanks], and three platoons of infantry Marines on the ground. Weapons platoon (my guys) were scattered throughout the platoons and tracks as well. We ran into the middle of their defense, and they stopped all of us dead cold. RPG after RPG. Machine guns’ fire everywhere. Marines were dropping. Every new turn we did, less Marines were there to confront them. We were taking on casualties. It was a chaotic mess. The tanks were just searching, traversing, alpha striking everywhere — an alpha strike is when they’re using all their weapons at once. [The tanks] were making Swiss cheese out of their houses, but it didn’t make a dent in the enemy. It got so bad that RPGs were getting stuck under smokestacks.”

On the Aftermath of Battle
“Those moments of quiet are what got me. Some guys it didn’t even affect. Some guys are just the epitome of a war fighter. I was more sensitive, but still proud to serve next to them and be one of them.”

On the Significant Lesson Learned
“When going through hell, just keep going. Keep moving.”

On Medals
“The Marine Corps doesn’t do that unless you’re a god.”

On Adjusting to Civilian Life
“It’s been a horrible transition. I didn’t know the VA existed. … I thank my lucky stars my uncle and my family were strong and were able to get me connected. I don’t know where I’d be without them right now, actually. I eventually went to a program where they said they would get me tools to help me handle who I was, but really it was just a guise to get numbers and put me on a bunch of medications, and say, ‘Here, you’re healed.’ I didn’t want that. I wanted to actually deal with who I was, not lose who I was.”

UCF Veteran - William Kahn

Corporal William Kahn
U.S. Army
Served: 2 years
War: World War II

On Speaking Multiple Languages
“I speak about three and a half languages. I speak English, German, Spanish and a little bit of Polish, what my dad taught me. I’d call that the half.”

On Being Drafted
“I was studying pre-medicine in college, and I wanted to finish my year out before I had to go, but they had a different idea. … In 1943, I went into the military, and they sent me to an anti-aircraft artillery battalion in Fort Bliss, Texas.”

On the Battle of the Bulge
“[That was my] first battle. Everything was very quiet for a couple days because we were blanketed with fog, and that’s the reason why we were initially losing the Battle of the Bulge — because of the fog. We were closed in. We couldn’t get any reinforcements. We couldn’t get any supplies. We couldn’t get any ammunition because the planes couldn’t fly. And the Germans had outnumbered us 2-to-1. We were completely surrounded. We went to bed that night, and everything was quiet. So quiet, you wouldn’t realize a war was going on. Then about 5:30 in the morning it sounded like all hell was breaking loose. We had to quickly get dressed, run out, and get our weapons. We knew that we were being attacked. I was captured shortly after that.”

On Being a Prisoner of War
“We marched 513 miles. It took us five months of marching, on the road every day, just as far as we could go. Wherever we got, we looked for a decent place to lay down. If we couldn’t find a place, we slept on the snow and the ice. … I gained favor with the guards by knowing German.”

On What They Were Fed
“Mostly, [the Germans] gave us a loaf of bread to divide between 15 and 20 people. If we would get one a day, we were fortunate, but usually we’d get about three loaves a week. And we got some soup, which we called grass soup. It was just water with grass thrown in and boiled, and bugs crawled on top of it. We had to spit them out.”

On How He Escaped
“[We escaped when the Russians attacked us near the Czechoslovakian border. My partner, George, and I managed to get away from them.] … We’d hide in the ditches most of the day. And one time, both of us were down in a ditch and we heard some tanks coming. We saw the star on it, and we knew it was our tank. We jumped out on the street and waved. We told [the guy in head of the tanks] that we were escaped prisoners.”

On Life After the War
“I ran a gasoline service station and returned to college, where I met my wife. We went to Elmhurst College and met in a chemistry class.”

UCF Veteran - John Gillooly

Captain John Gillooly
U.S. Navy
Served: 30 years
War: World War II

On Arriving in the Pacific
“It was much harder than I thought it would be. There was much to learn. Although I had been trained technically at the Naval Academy, I had all this to learn about a ship at sea and life at sea and a crew, and you had to learn it in a hurry because we were under fire the better part of the time.”

On the Battle of Surigao Strait
“I was on the USS Columbia, a light cruiser in the South Pacific. The night after we had put the troops to shore, the Japanese came up through Surigao Strait to begin what would be the last great surface battle of all time. … It was like the Fourth of July, that night battle. We’re firing. We have 6-inch guns and 5-inch guns, and I’m on sound-powered phones in the middle of this. The whole thing is frightening. It’s also a wonder to see it.”

On First Seeing a Kamikaze
“We were in a circular formation in Leyte Gulf. It was about dusk, and all of a sudden, we’re under attack from 25 Japanese aircraft. … I’m in a full air control position, so I have wide vision and I can see what’s happening. I see them. Four of them break off and dive directly down on the cruiser opposite us, the St. Louis, in a formation. Two of them just miss her, and two of them hit her. That’s the first time I realized what we were up against because we had no chance. There was no way. We didn’t have guns fast enough to stop that, so if they were going to hit us, they were going to hit us. We lost many, many people; one of them was my classmate.”

On Hiroshima and Nagasaki
“We were prepared, and we had been briefed for the invasion of Japan. We knew we were gonna be in great danger. Unbeknownst to us, we came back for one of those night sweeps, and the next morning it was announced that the first bomb had been dropped. We had no knowledge of that. It was unexpected. Then, the next bomb was dropped.”

On V-J Day
“I celebrated V-J Day in the harbor in Okinawa with a couple of friends of mine. We had a couple of guys who knew how to find medicinal alcohol, so we had a great celebration.”

After WWII
“I came back on the Columbia and stayed on her, and decided I never wanted to go to war again unless I was flying an air craft, so I put in for flight training. After some months, I finally got ordered to flight training. That was another whole chapter in my life.”

On Learning to Fly
“It’s a young man’s game to learn to fly. I was older, and I had already had some experience with my life, so it was pretty difficult for me to go through flight training.”

UCF Veteran at the Florida National Cemetery

A veteran stops by one of the graves in the Florida National Cemetery, located in Bushnell. (Photo courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel)

Finding Their Stories 

On July 19, 1918, Alexander Miguel Roberts was flying over Belgium as part of what was then called the Army Air Corps, when he found himself in a dogfight. He was outnumbered 3-to-1, but managed to strike down one of the enemy planes before his plane was shot down.

“My plane descended and when it struck earth, I was inside the German lines and was made a prisoner,” said Roberts in an article that ran in his hometown newspaper a month after the attack.

His capture and release nearly a year later made Roberts an aviation legend. He would go on to appear in air shows, compete in cross-country races and serve in World War II.

“He helped generate enthusiasm for the birth of aviation in America,” writes UCF history major Alexander Zimmerman in a biography on the lieutenant colonel who died on July 23, 1988, and is one of the nearly 130,000 veterans buried in the Florida National Cemetery.

The paper was researched and written as part of the Veterans Legacy Program. Created by the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), an agency of the Department of Veterans Affair , the project works to share the stories of deceased veterans with a broad audience. UCF was one of only three universities selected to launch the project.

“UCF’s history department was in a unique position to compete for this VA contract because we are dedicated to public engagement,” says Amelia Lyons, an associate professor of history who leads the project at UCF and has been working with students such as Zimmerman. “The National Cemetery Administration runs 135 cemeteries in the U.S., and one of the largest is the Florida National Cemetery.”

While the goal for this program is related to UCF’s Community Veterans History Project, in that both aim to share veterans’ stories, the work students and faculty are doing to tell those stories is different. For starters, students in the Veterans Legacy Program must do significant research to learn more about the people listed on tombstones and grave markers. To do so, they rely on primary sources like draft registration cards, local newspapers and family members, so they can write robust biographies about each individual, such as Roberts.

The program’s focus is also different in its goal to make this research available to K–12 schools. Part of that includes educational tours of the cemetery, such as the one conducted in May for seventh-graders from Davenport School of the Arts. UCF students, faculty and staff taught them about individual veterans, the VA and NCA. There is also a website for educators to use in the classroom, and an app, which cemetery visitors can use by scanning a tombstone to read about an individual veteran.

“When we went out to the cemetery, we saw this ocean of white markers. Each one is a person who fought for our country, but all we see is stones,” says Zimmerman, whose grandfather was a high-ranking officer in the Flying Tigers, uncle flew helicopters in Vietnam and brother fought during the Iraq War. “But then you find out the story behind each stone. Now that’s a person who was willing to give up his or her entire life so that we can have the life we have. It just makes it so much more impactful.”