Tips for interviewing war veterans

We’re in the season for interviewing military veterans. Veterans Day is coming up on Nov. 11, the Pearl Harbor anniversary is right on its heels on Dec. 7, and anytime after Dec. 16 and into January, there’s the Battle of the Bulge.

Here are some suggestions for how to have a productive interview:

COME PREPARED: Before you meet with the vet, know something about his or her service. If he’s a Pearl Harbor survivor, which branch of the service was he in, and where on Oahu did he serve? If he was in the Army Air Forces at the Wheeler Field fighter base, read up on what happened at Wheeler. Ask for the unit he served in and look it up on authoritative websites.

ASK FOR PROOF OF SERVICE: Before your visit, have the vet dig out his or her military paperwork ready for you to examine, preferably a DD-214, which is a summary of service at discharge. You want to be sure you’re dealing with the real McCoy. (I once killed a story because a man who claimed to be a Vietnam vet couldn’t, or wouldn’t, show me papers to prove it.) Be careful, though: Documents don’t always tell the truth. Asking questions can help resolve discrepancies.

THE RIGHT PLACE: Set up the interview for a place where the vet will feel comfortable. This is almost always at his or her home or the home of a relative.

BE ON TIME: If you tell an aging ex-warrior that you’re going to be at his home at 1 p.m., make sure you’re there. Getting someone to open up requires that you first gain his trust, and one way to do that is to show respect. I once was five minutes late for an interview with an Iwo Jima Marine and caught hell from him about it.

RECORDING: I bring a Sony recorder, get it out first thing, hold it up and say, “This is a digital recorder. I’m going to turn it on and leave it on while we talk.” Then I set it down on a table until we’re done. I also use a pad to take notes, mainly to jot down dates and the spelling of names and places.

THE INTERVIEW: Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder said an interview is a conversation, but a directed conversation. That’s how you need to approach it. Chat, but make sure you’re on the path to getting the information you need. You lead the conversation.

I usually start by asking the vet to tell me about his or her childhood – where he grew up, what his parents did for a living, if he had siblings, if he was working before he got into the service, then where he trained. This acts as a warm-up to make him relaxed and comfortable. You’re starting with (presumably) good memories of family life and home, not with traumatic events of war.

Be sure that the anecdotes he tells you form an image in your mind. This is the power of storytelling. If you’re not getting the picture, ask questions to fill in the gaps. Remember that if you can’t follow the thread of a story, your readers won’t, either.

Don’t interrupt; you might wreck his train of thought and lose a valuable insight. And don’t think you have to say anything during long pauses. Often during these silent interludes, he’s thinking, rummaging through the file cabinet of his mind that you have helped him to unlock. You don’t want to distract him from that search.

Don’t hold back on asking the tough questions. You don’t want to upset him, but still you need to ask the vet who describes an up-close fight with the enemy: Did you kill anyone?

If he starts crying, don’t touch him or say anything to stop him; just let him go until he pulls out of it – and he will. Then you might want to say something to reassure him like, “It’s OK, you can tell me as much as you want or as little as you want.”

If he gives you times and dates that don’t line up with the historical record, point them out to him. He’ll be grateful that you’re helping him preserve the integrity of his story.

ASK FOR PHOTOS: Personal wartime photos help to send the vet back in time. Ask when and where they were taken, and under what circumstances. This will lead to more remembrances.

GOING BACK: I’ve always found that one interview of two to three hours is a good start, but not enough. Schedule another for a week or two hence. In the meantime, the vet’s mind will work on what he’s told you, and what you’ve asked him about, and more truths will surface that he’ll tell you about the next time. When I interviewed a Bataan Death March survivor, we met almost weekly for several months to cover the march and his more than three years as a prisoner of the Japanese. On the down side, some vets might have nightmares after your visit. More than once I’ve been told: Dammit, you’re making me remember all this stuff I wanted to forget! But they didn’t stop talking to me.

There you have it in a nutshell. I hope these ideas help.


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