Sitting in his kitchen, Navy veteran Jim Middlekauff, ’99, tells the tale of a time many students today couldn’t imagine.
The UCF alumnus is one of many to share his personal story through the UCF Community Veterans History Project, an interdisciplinary campus project and collaboration of several different departments, which started in 2010 in support of the Regional Initiative for Collecting the History, Experiences and Stories of Central Florida.
“From my experiences, and the experiences of all veterans, students can learn that freedom is not free,” says Middlekauff, former assistant for the University Registrar for Veterans Services at UCF. “Veterans dedicate their lives through their service, and the Veterans History Project is a unique narrative where students can get a personal perspective of the life of a veteran and the role that military personnel have played in securing our freedom and way of life.”
Once the project came to campus, the departments quickly made a goal to serve as significant contributors to the national initiative, the Veterans History Project through the Library of Congress.
All veterans who served in the U.S. armed forces, on active or reserve status, are welcome to participate.
Eligible veterans can also be those who have experience in wartime and peacetime, served in combat units, supported units behind the lines, and trained and held administrative positions at home.
After the veterans are interviewed, the recordings are archived and preserved in the UCF Library’s Digital Collections. Interviews that meet the national project qualification of being at least 30 minutes long with no breaks or pauses are sent off to the national project.
“I came to this position with a true interest in supporting veterans … and a passion for veterans and their stories being told,” says Tiffany Rivera, assistant director of educational and training programs. “It is a way to get the public involved in their own history in ways that are relevant and that are outside of the traditional classroom.”
So far, the campus project has interviewed more than 400 veterans through varying methods.
For the first two years, students conducted the interviews either voluntarily or through a class.
Now, along with this approach, a peer-to-peer initiative has been adopted, through which participants in the project go out into the community and train residents to do interviews with their peers.
There are also corporate interview days when participants travel to corporations to conduct interviews with veterans who are employees at places such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and JHT Inc.
“Because the interviews are available online and accessible to the public, it’s a great way for researchers to find information they won’t be able to find in a textbook per se,” Rivera explains. “Some want students to understand what they have done and appreciate the freedom they have and sacrifices they have given.”
Initially, the project was collecting about 50 interviews per year, and now about 50 are conducted each semester. Rivera credits the increase in interviews to the community’s involvement and peer-to-peer interviews.
“I have learned that veterans are not always respected in the way they should be, and this project has taught me that each story is unique, each experience is unique and you don’t have to have some big combat story to have contributed,” she says.
As a 22-year veteran, Middlekauff says he felt obligated to assist with the project because valuable military history is being lost nationwide as the number of veterans of previous wars are declining.
“Military history is an important part of our country’s history,” he says. “This is a history that, without being told, would be lost forever.”
While the project has expanded to more than just student efforts, students still play a major role.
Daniel Bradfield, a former UCF graduate research assistant, says oral histories provide students with an opportunity to learn about individuals from a specific period of time and hear personal experiences with historical events and people.
“I enjoyed hearing people’s stories and using historical research to investigate people’s lives and adding their individual voices on a topic,” he says. “Additionally, I became interested with the interview process and building a valid and interesting oral history project.”
Any student is able and encouraged to get involved in the project.
“Our students do these interviews and walk away with their eyes huge because they have talked to someone who has experienced something really foreign to them,” Rivera says. “More and more families don’t have a service member, so hearing these stories is a unique opportunity.
“This project is a way to capture history while it’s still alive.”