VA Presents: My Life, My Story

By Veterans Health Administration

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Description

If someone asked you to tell your life story, what would you say?

Since 2013, writers from the “My Life, My Story” project have asked more than 5,000 Veterans at VA hospitals around the United States to tell their life stories. With the Veteran’s permission, those stories go into the Veteran’s medical record so that VA health care providers can read them and get to know their patients better.

On this podcast, we’ll share some of our favorite stories from over the years.

Episode Date
Charlie: I Don't Want Notoriety
500
For our last episode of the first season of the "My Life, My Story" podcast, we decided to record the story of the oldest Veteran we've ever interviewed. "Charlie" was nearly 108 when his story was written in the spring of 2020. That means he was old even for World War II veterans. By the time he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, he was already 32.

There's something about Charlie's story that captures what our project is all about. His recall of events from 80 years ago is, of course, far from perfect. His version of events won't be found in history books. His story is subjective, a little meandering.

But in about a thousand words, we learn enough about Charlie's life - about his parents, his military service, his wife, and his career -- to get an idea of what meant the most to him during his 108 years on this planet.

We hope to share more of these imperfect histories with you in future seasons of our podcast. From our stockpile of over 5,000 stories, we've still got tales from a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, from a Korean War POW, from Veterans who have struck it rich or been thrown in prison. Some ponder the meaning of life. Others just want to tell you the incredible story of how they found true love.

Be sure to like and subscribe to the series wherever it is you listen to podcasts to make sure you get updates on future episodes of VA Presents: My Life, My Story.
Aug 31, 2020
Jess: Talking About Trauma
637
When we ask veterans to tell us about their lives, some choose to avoid painful subjects. And that's just fine by us. The aim of "My Life, My Story" isn't to drag out confessions or extract difficult memories.

Instead, our goal is to give Veterans a space to talk about who they are and where they come from. "What else do you want your doctors and nurses to know about you?" is a question we often ask. For some vets, the answer is: not a whole lot. "Let's just skip over my first marriage," one vet might say. "My time in Vietnam isn't something I like to talk about," says another.

But for other Veterans, talking about tough stuff in their past is central to the interview. After all, rough patches are often the most formative periods in our lives.

Veterans who've been through combat have asked to go into details precisely because they'd rather not have to tell the same old war stories, over and over, to their health care providers. "I'd rather just get this written down and then tell anyone who's curious to read my story."

Something we've also heard many times: "It's OK, I'm used to talking about this."

Something else: "This is the first time I've told anyone this."

In this episode of our podcast, "Jess" opted to talk about traumatic events that happened to her -- and other women veterans -- while she served in the military. She also talks about working through those memories, how they shaped her, and how they led her to the career field she's in today.

This episode discusses Military Sexual Trauma, or MST. For more information about the topic from the VA, check out this slink: https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/mentalhealth/msthome/index.asp
Aug 31, 2020
Tom: The Doctor Is In
482
Most of the 5,000-plus Veterans we've interviewed for the "My Life, My Story" project aren't famous. In fact, when we enter someone's hospital room to ask if they'd like to participate, we usually know absolutely nothing about that Veteran. And we do that on purpose.

Why? A couple reasons. First, we think it gives the Veteran free rein to talk about any aspect of their life that they want to share with their health care providers. That freedom creates a spontaneity, we think, that leads to better stories.

Second, we like to think we don't have biases that spill into our interviews, but that isn't always true. An example: if you knew that a Veteran had just received a new liver because he was a lifelong alcoholic, would it cloud your perception of how he tells his story? Would you subtly point the interview toward his past struggles with alcoholism? Maybe not. But still, we want the Veteran to decide what to talk about, not us.

Now and again, however, we interview someone whose history is already familiar to us. That was the case with Tom Every, a.k.a. Dr. Evermor, who we interviewed several years before his death in 2020. Dr. Evermor was a well-known artist in the Midwest, known for welding and shaping junkyard castoffs into wild, funny, often-towering sculptures. He'd been featured on TV shows and in magazines and documentaries.

Funny thing, though: his interviewer didn't know that at first. It wasn't until Tom revealed his artistic doppelganger that the writer realized who he was talking to. Again, we think that led to a story very different from the typical features you'd read about "Dr. Evermor" in a magazine or newspaper.

For more about Dr. Evermor, check out this website about his sculpture garden in Wisconsin. There were also articles published about him when he passed away in the spring of 2020 that you can read here and here.
Aug 31, 2020
Hank: Getting Focused
592
A common theme that pops up in our stories is perseverance. Anyone who lives a long life will, of course, go through hard times at some point. But for many of the combat Veterans we've interviewed, hard times are thrust upon them at an early age.

That was the case for "Hank", whose story we hear in this episode of the "My Life, My Story" podcast.

As a Marine in Vietnam, Hank saw combat up close, and his re-entry to the civilian world afterward was also rocky.

Hank's story shows that perseverance doesn't always happen in a straight line. His life - and his approach to getting through tough times - takes several turns over the decades. His journey includes a trusted dog, upended relationships, a successful career . . . and a photograph.

Every once in a while, a Veteran's story like Hank's brings up the idea of talismans, or good-luck charms. People hold on to little objects to remember good times gone by, or to ward off future calamity, or both. Do you have an object like that? If you'd like to tell us about it, or if you'd like to reach out to us about this podcast, send us a note at vhamadmystory@va.gov. We'd love to hear from you.
Aug 31, 2020
Toby: We Knew What Love Was
628
Everyone we interview for the "My Life, My Story" project is, of course, a veteran. Some of them talk about war -- what they've seen in war, who they've lost, how it changed them. But at the core of almost every single one of the 5,000-plus life stories we've written since 2103 is love.

A Veteran might focus on his or her love for a spouse. Another talks about love for a parent, a child, a brother, or a fellow soldier or sailor. Many talk about their love for their country, and how that informed their decision to join the military in the first place. Some talk about all of those loves, and more.

But we also encounter a lot of stories about what happens when love is absent or disappears. Veterans have told us about what it feels like to get a 'Dear John' or 'Dear Jane' letter from your fiancée when you're halfway around the world. They've told us what it's like to be disowned from your family. What it's like to grow up in a place where no one seems to want you around, to be abandoned.

In this week's episode, the Veteran, Toby, talks a lot about love, particularly near the end. And he talks openly about how much difference love can make in a person's life.
Aug 31, 2020
Steve: Mein Freund
579
If someone asked you to tell your life story, where would you begin?

For a lot of people, the answer to that question is "I was born in … "

When we interview people, we often start there, too. "Where were you born?" is a perfectly fine way to begin a conversation. From there, Veterans might talk about where they grew up, who their parents were, where they went to school, when they got married, etc. In other words, they talk about their life chronologically, focusing on "milestone moments" along the way.

We have a phrase for interviews that go like that. We call them "Just the Facts."

A lot of Veterans we talk to are far less straightforward. They, like most of us, think in tangents, speak in anecdotes, and play hopscotch on the timeline as they recount the biggest moments in their lives. Writing stories from interviews like that can be harder than composing a "Just the Facts" life review. But those tangents and anecdotes can be gold when you're looking for a good story.

In this episode of our podcast, "Steve" did something we truly found delightful: he centered his entire life story around a single friendship that spanned a lifetime. It was an unusual way to tell a life history, but we loved it. We hope you do, too.
Aug 31, 2020
George: A Voice To Be Heard
1211
Not long after the "My Life, My Story" project launched in 2013, it was decided that Veterans' stories should be written in the first-person. The reason is that we wanted a veteran's voice to shine through. After all, beyond knowing the facts of a person's life, knowing how they narrate their own story can be just as enlightening.

Here's an example: Instead of saying "Mr. Smith has always valued hard work", we once quoted a veteran who described himself this way: “Always been a worker, always will be a worker. The day I die I’ll take the shovel and dig my own grave with it.”

Isn't that way better?

Or, in this case, a veteran describes how his family often didn't have enough to eat when he was growing up.

“We hunted for our food. In the winter we would go hunting for squirrels. I still like squirrels today. We also hunted for rabbits. In the spring we'd get up in the morning and go down to the creek. We'd fish all day for half a dozen black suckers. Oh god! When I think back about that time. Those were bony fish. My parents would cook them with onions and water. I'd go out and get a gallon of buttermilk from the creamery and they'd add that in and call it fish soup. We were so hungry we'd end up eating the heads and tails we cut off. I remember coughing up the bones.”

That's waaaaay more descriptive than just saying "When Mr. X was young, his family often had to hunt for food."

But sometimes, even writing the stories in the Veteran's own words can't quite capture how that veteran sounds. Some people just need to be heard, either because they have the gift of gab or because their sonorous voice grabs you by the guts.

This episode features one of those Veterans. George Arnold regularly does public-speaking events for large audiences, and after about 10 seconds of hearing him, you'll know why. We're so glad that he agreed to read his own story for us on this episode. And afterwards, he also agreed to let us record him giving a speech that you've probably heard before but that's worth another listen.
Aug 31, 2020
Bibiana: A Teenage Soldier
685
A central goal of the "My Life, My Story" project is to help VA medical staff get to know their patients better. Doctors and nurses are always pressed for time, but by reading these thousand-word life histories in the medical record, our hope is that VA staff can learn a lot about a patient's life in just a matter of minutes.

But aside from that goal, we think this project offers some major perks for those who actually listen to and write these stories. Among them: getting to talk to people who had front-row seats for some of the past century's biggest moments.

In this episode of our podcast, you'll meet Bibiana. Bibiana was a small, elderly woman in the hospital when she was interviewed for this story. But as we like to say about the Veterans we interview, "You never know who's behind that door." Her story truly astounded us, and we're glad to preserve it here.

At the end of this story, you might be wondering why Bibiana was being cared for in a VA hospital in the first place. We wondered about that, too, so we looked it up. It turns out that the VA provides medical services to people like Bibiana’s husband and herself who fought for the Allies in World War II. For more information about that program, click on this slink.

FULL LINK: https://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/apply/allied_beneficiaries.asp
Aug 31, 2020
Harry: A Guard, a Donkey, and a Cart
529
Almost 94,000 Americans were held as prisoners-of-war in Europe during World War II. In this episode of the "My Life, My Story" podcast, you'll hear the story of one of them, Harry, who managed to escape.

Harry's run from the Reich was reason enough to pick his story to feature in our first season of this podcast. But we also chose it for another reason. During his interview, Harry did something that often happens when we interview veterans. In a bslink, his life story pivoted in a totally unexpected new direction that took us by surprise. Those pivot points in life are often what make stories like Harry's jump off the page.

A quick note about Harry's story: usually we write up our stories from a single interview that lasts about an hour. But sometimes we stitch together stories from different places. In this case, Harry asked us to flesh out his story using a September 2014 article in the Iron Mountain Daily News and another interview he did that year with WXPR, a public radio station in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Click on those slinks if you want to learn more about Harry's life.

Also, that figure mentioned above about the number of American POWs in Europe comes from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which has a wonderful website devoted to the stories of American POWs in Europe from that era. If you're interested, check it out here.
Aug 31, 2020
Simon: When Work Is Your Hobby
566
If you were asked to tell your life story, what would you talk about the most?

Your family? Your career? Love? Loss? That one day in your 20s that "changed everything"?

When people first hear about the "My Life, My Story" project, many assume that the stories we hear from veterans focus solely on their time in the military, or on combat and heroism in the battlefield.

Not quite.

We certainly hear and collect "war stories" in our project, and you'll hear some of those on our podcast. But more often, the veterans we interview weren't on the front lines of battle. Maybe they were supply clerks or mechanics or served between wars. And even if the veteran did see extensive combat, he/she doesn't always want to talk about it much, and that's fine with us.

Instead, we try to give veterans space to talk about things that have meant the most to them over their lifetime. As a result, a lot of our stories focus on things very unlike war. In this episode of our podcast, for example, Simon focused most of his attention on … a department store.

After listening, if you're feeling in the Christmas-y mood, take a look at this article about the Yuletide traditions in Chicago that Simon discusses in his story.
Aug 31, 2020
Zack: The Gambler
500
A hospital room might not seem like an ideal spot for someone to tell their life story.

There are all those beeping machines. Nurses are popping in and out on their rounds. And the patients themselves have to wear those silly robes and no-slip socks; often they are feeling sick or tired . . . or both.

And yet, despite the interruptions and other little annoyances, most of the 5,000-plus interviews we've done with veterans through the "My Life, My Story" project have occurred in hospitals. And that has proven, we think, to be a good thing.

The fact is, spending a few days at a hospital can be downright boring. Besides being unwell, patients are usually stuck in their rooms without much to do besides watch TV and rest. Chatting with a stranger about your life can relieve the tedium. Beyond that, we’ve also found that patients are often in reflective moods before we even talk to them. After all, when you're sick, it's hard not to get a little nostalgic for days when you felt a whole lot better.

This episode of our podcast features Zack. At the time of his interview, Zack was being monitored with an EEG for seizures. Attached to his head were a bunch of wires and electrodes. He'd hardly slept the night before. And yet, he agreed to be interviewed, and the story he told us was one of our favorites. We hope you enjoy it, too.
Aug 31, 2020
Carl: Losing a Friend
568
Imagine. You're a patient in the hospital, maybe recovering from a knee surgery or pneumonia. You're lying in bed, watching something boring on TV, when you hear a knock at the door.

"Come in," you say, and a stranger walks into your room. They're carrying a notepad and a pen, and they ask if you'd like to be interviewed about your life.

Believe it or not this happens every day at VA hospitals around the country. The strangers walking into the rooms are writers. The patients who choose to tell their stories are America's Veterans. The program is called "My Life, My Story"

In the seven years since the program started, we've interviewed well over 5,000 veterans at over 50 VA hospitals. We've spoken with veterans as young as 22 years old and as old as 108.

Most of the interviews last about an hour. After that, we write up a story that’s about a thousand words long. When we’re done, we read the story back to the Veteran, and once they’re happy with it, we put it in their medical record. That way, their doctors and nurses can read the stories, too. The goal is to make health care a little more personal, to help staff get to know their patients better.

But one thing we've noticed about these stories: while it's nice to read them on the page, they're even better read aloud. On this podcast, we’re going to do just that. For Season One, we've selected a dozen of our favorites. In a few cases, the Veterans themselves will read their stories. For the others, we found voice actors or VA staff to read for us. On this, our first episode, we begin with the story of Carl, a Vietnam War veteran. The reader is Thor Ringler, who directs the national office of the "My Life, My Story" project in Madison, Wisconsin.

We hope you enjoy these stories as much as we do.
Aug 31, 2020