Miami-Dade County

National oral history project StoryCorps stops in Miami to collect veterans’ stories

Before that Thursday, James Garcia had rarely talked about his three tours of duty, remembering his fellow Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan but sharing little detail of his time there.

But on a gloomy afternoon on the University of Miami campus last week, eight years after Garcia became a veteran, it all came together — his life before, during and after war, recorded as part of a national oral military initiative. Garcia’s story will eventually be preserved at the Library of Congress.

“In telling my story, it lives on,” said Garcia, 32, a Queens native now living in Kendall. “I wanted people to know something about my military history, about the intense experience in Fallujah, about serving my country.’’

For three days, StoryCorps, the nonprofit oral history project chronicling the lives of everyday people, was in Miami recording the stories of veterans — some from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — along with service members and military families as part of its Military Voices Initiative.

The personal stories being collected all over the country are about war and much more, meant to broaden how civilians view and understand veterans. A total of 18 veterans, and parents and wives of veterans, were invited to participate in Miami including Jack Diamond, 89, a World War II Army veteran who recounted his experience at a German prisoner-of-war camp near Poland in 1944.

“We want to bridge the gap between veterans and civilians by having the veterans tell their stories and having the public listen,’’ said Christina Stanton, a StoryCorps facilitator who travels the country recording interviews. “Often we find the veteran has not told his or her story because no one has asked. We are encouraging that conversation and saying to our veterans, you are not forgotten.’’

With the participants’ permission, the recordings will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Segments of some interviews may also air nationally on NPR’s Weekend Edition. So far, more than 1,000 interviews have been recorded including an Army widow talking about the death of her wife who was killed by a suicide bomber in Khost, Afghanistan in 2012. In another interview, two buddies , a Marine and a Navy Seal, recount their recovery after they got into trouble drinking and fighting in bars while trying to readjust to life back home.

The initiative was launched about two years ago as a way to recognize veterans, particularly those who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars. In Miami, the stories are being gathered in partnership with UM’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Warmamas, a Coral Gables-based organization that documents the stories of mothers whose children serve or have served during war.

“This comes at a unique moment in history when the conflicts are winding down and the troops are coming home. The research we looked at said there is a huge disconnect between veterans and civilians,” said Sylvie Lubow, MVI’s program manager. “We wanted to provide a space where a meaningful conversation can take place, where the veteran can share whatever they want to share with us.’’

During the recording at UM, Garcia shared experiences from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, glimpses into his military life that he had mostly kept to himself. During his eight-month stint in Fallujah from 2005 to 2006, the Iraqi city was considered among the most deadliest war zones in the world. Several members of his company were killed in combat.

“The experience felt surreal and of course we were scared, but what I want to explain is that, in a way, it’s not so much about being scared, but the realization that you are human and no matter how many firebombs or explosions you survive, the next second you can still be dead,’’ said Garcia, now a student studying social work at Florida Atlantic University. “You survived — but maybe not the next time. And while we wanted to make it back home to our families, we also were thinking about making sure the Marine on our side gets home to their family too.’’

The interviews, coordinated by Warmamas, were conducted as a conversation between the subject, a facilitator and, ideally, a friend or family member to create an intimate 40-minute exchange. The discussion is frequently free-ranging, from childhood memories to overseas battle zones to what life looks like after leaving the military. Among the common themes: pride and service, combat-related injuries and the challenges of multiple deployments.

“There is so much to learn from our nation’s heroes, including the complex realities of service and sacrifice that these men and women have faced,” said Rebecca Fox, dean of UM’s division of continuing and international education, which administers the Learning Institute.

Rose Bagley, a Miami first-grade teacher who was one of the parents interviewed for the project, recounted the days leading to her son’s overseas deployment last summer from Fort Knox, Kentucky. A U.S. Army combat engineer, Michael William Bagley spent three months in Afghanistan where his job was finding improvised explosive devices.

“I flew to him so I could see him in June before he left. I still remember how emotional it was. I remember the wives and babies and mothers, and the crying,’’ said Bagley, 65. “And I remember trying to be brave. But when he left on that white bus and was out of sight, I cried, too.’’

Bagley said she lived with fear, withdrawing from her normally active social life.

“There were so many young men and women dying, and knowing his job was to look for explosives, I was sick all the time,’’ she said. “I was with my family but I didn’t feel right going out having fun. I did a lot of praying.”

In August 2013, Michael Bagley was driving a Husky military truck when it was struck by a roadside bomb. He suffered frontal lobe trauma and short-term memory loss. In January, he received a Purple Heart medal. Now recovered, Bagley, 23, is on active duty in Fort Carson, Colorado.

The oldest in the Miami group was Diamond, an Army veteran, who talked about his time as a prisoner-of-war seven decades ago. Diamond said he still remembers the chilling instructions of his commanding officer. If captured, trash the dog tags that revealed he was Jewish with an etched “H” for Hebrew.

“The dog tag has your religion on it. They told us if you are ever captured, throw your dog tag away if you are a Jew. I didn’t,’’ said Diamond in an interview with UM after the MVI recording. “I am an American. I am fighting for my country. Take me the way I am.”

Diamond, who served as a gunner and an observer, said he was rescued by Russian troops after about six months.

U.S. Army veteran Robert Butler, 43, of Coral Gables, came to his interview while recovering from back surgery to correct a war-related crushed disc. After serving five years and two Iraq deployments as a sniper and infantryman, Butler, came out of the service in 2008. He still lives with pain — physically and psychologically.

By the end of his second tour of duty in Salman Pak, 15 miles south of Baghdad, Butler said a third of his platoon was injured or dead, some he memorialized by tattooing their names on his chest. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Butler still occasionally wakes up at night screaming, or crashes to the floor at the sound of loud noises.

Much of what he told the interviewer was about the difficulty of transitioning back to civilian life, the stresses of PTSD and veterans’ suicides, which now outpace combat deaths.

“I came back feeling very lost and alone and, in some ways, shunned,’’ Butler said. “I want people to know we sacrificed our lives for freedom. Never forget us.’’