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Researching a veteran's military service - oral history.

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Searching for a relative’s military service can be a difficult endeavor if you don't know what you're looking for, and often even if you do. In this series on undertaking research, I will walk you through what to look for, where to find it, and what you or relatives/friends may already have. This is an ongoing section which will allow me to break the process into small easily understood steps.

As a historical researcher and a genealogist, I have found that that oral history is a goldmine of information. Often overlooked it can provide the background to the time you are researching and add a more personal view on the veteran. Little tidbits of offered information, seemingly unrelated, may provide leads of where to look when faced with a dead end! It is important to keep in mind that details and locations may be changed, added to or altered as one person tells another. Verification is an excellent practice. Don't get discouraged if there are seemingly dead ends based on some of the information you are given. As you become more familiar with the war, your relatives movements and more information goes online that same information may be come great leads.

Here are some tips to get started.

1. Make a list of people/relatives who may have information on the person you are researching.

2. Ask the person(s) if you can talk to them about that particular time?

3. Ask if they would allow you to record them so you can give the story they are telling all of your full attention. If not, then take notes.

4. Be respectful and patient, if the interview wanders then go with it. It may be the best thing you ever did.

5. Turn your phone and computer notifications off and don't keep checking your social media, texts or emails. Nothing will stop the flow of an interview and shut down the exchange of information quicker, and it is seen as very disrespectful especially by the elderly. Remember they may be telling you about the most painful time of their lives.

6. Set aside ample time and maybe have two or three interviews depending on the person you are interviewing. The advantage to this is once the memories are stimulated more may come. You could also ask them if they would write down things they remember in between or after your meeting(s). I always leave a brightly colored notebook that is easy to recognize and find and will also remind them of your request.

7. Set up an excel spreadsheet or other organizational method to transcribe the information to. A lot of information can get overwhelming quickly, and information can get lost. (see post on organizing your information).

Here are some questions you can ask. Make your questions open ended to avoid yes and no answers.

1. Do you know what branch of service they served in?

2. Do you recall what they did?

3. Do you recall any of the stories they told you?

4. What do you remember about their service? About that time? (This is important because if you do not ask this, the person you are asking may think you are only interested in what the military member told them?)

5. Do you recall any of the action they saw?

6. What struck you the most about their time in the service, and the war in general etc.?

7. Is there anyone that may have information or letters etc. from the veteran?

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