Public invited to share memories of Vietnam War this month at Dole Institute ‘Storybooth’

photo by: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

The Dole Institute of Politics is pictured Thursday, July 17, 2003, in Lawrence.

More than 6 million viewers across the U.S. tuned in earlier this fall to watch the stories of veterans, including Baldwin City resident John Musgrave, and others who lived through the Vietnam War in an acclaimed PBS documentary series.

This month, in conjunction with the release of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” Kansas City PBS affiliate KCPT is inviting local veterans — and others who lived through the era — to share their experiences. After six months traveling around the Kansas City area, KCPT’s Storybooth makes its last stop this month at the Dole Institute of Politics, 2350 Petefish Drive.

“The design and intent was very much that a person could go in and sit down and just tell us their story,” says Lindsey Foat, community engagement producer at KCPT.

So far, Foat and her colleagues have collected approximately 20 stories from local veterans, their families and others touched by the Vietnam War. The Storybooth is an oral history project in the same vein as the StoryCorps vignettes broadcasted on NPR: Folks can stop by the pop-up booth and easily record their memories, or submit their experiences online via the Public Insight Network.

“We wanted to collect stories of service and stories about how the Vietnam War impacted our community, and obviously with our cameras we can’t be everywhere we’d like to be collecting these stories,” Foat says.

So far, those stories have ranged from a longtime couple’s story of meeting shortly before the husband’s deployment to Vietnam, to a veteran and his daughter discussing how the Vietnam War changed him “as a parent” upon returning home.

Foat says the project has also encouraged stories from civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict, including Vietnamese refugees who fled to America as a result of the war. Around 16,000 made their homes in the Kansas City metro area, Foat says.

The “complete story” of the Vietnam War extends beyond battlefield stories from those who fought, Foat says. Audrey Coleman, senior archivist at the Dole Center, agrees.

“While many of the oral history projects are focused on — and rightfully so — the soldiers and servicewomen who served in Vietnam, the stories of the women and the families back home are the stories we don’t often hear about,” Coleman says.

The Dole Institute’s “The League of Wives: Vietnam’s POW/MIA Allies & Advocates” exhibit has a similar theme. The display, which opened in May and runs through Dec. 31 at the Dole Institute, tells the story of the trailblazing women who formed the National League of POW/MIA Families in 1970.

Challenging stereotypes about the traditional “military wife” and defying government protocol in the process, the women worked with Congress and the Nixon administration for the safe return of their husbands after years of imprisonment and torture by the North Vietnamese.

Based on an upcoming book (“The League of Wives: a True Story of Survival and Rescue from the Homefront) by 2017 Dole Archives curatorial fellow Heath Hardage Lee, the exhibit draws from the Dole Archives’ collection of photographs, documents, oral histories and memorabilia.

Veterans of the conflict won’t be around forever, Foat points out. Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used by American troops in Vietnam, is creating health issues (including heart disease and cancer) for veterans 40 years on, and she said Vietnam veterans are now dying at a faster rate than veterans of World War II.

She wants the StoryBooth accounts to “have a life beyond the project” once it’s finished. Ideally, that would mean finding a home for the archived stories at either a local or national institution, Foat says, though KCPT hasn’t found such a home for them yet.

“The whole goal is to start conversations and get people talking about a subject that for many years they weren’t really permitted to talk about or didn’t feel comfortable talking about,” Foat says. “We felt this was an ideal opportunity to execute an idea we’ve been thinking about for a long time … We’re delighted that it’s going to finish off at the Dole Institute.”

To share your Vietnam War story, visit Select stories will appear online.