Recording veterans stories

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 19th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along today! Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up on The World and Everything in It, telling veterans’ stories.

Today, there are about 20 million military veterans living in the United States. Many of them fought in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and most recently in the Middle East, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

BASHAM: After these soldiers return to civilian life, they often don’t like to talk about their experiences. Even friends and family may only know bits and pieces of their stories. 

Now a program spreading to Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country is working to record those untold stories. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Robert Hall has lived a full-life.

HALL: My, my full name is Robert A. Hall and I’m a Marine Vietnam veteran. I’m 73 now.

Hall says his time in the Marines propelled him into a life of service. He served as a Massachusetts state Senator, headed up multiple professional associations, and married. 

As he got older, his lungs began to fail. He spent a lot of time at the VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. But most of his healthcare providers didn’t know anything about the life he’d led.

HALL: When I was here, I tried to be the most cooperative, helpful, friendly, cheerful patient I could be because I wanted these people to want me to stay alive.

That feeling of being just another patient changed in 2014. Robert Hall was at the VA hospital again—this time recovering from a lung transplant when someone new came into his room.

HALL: A volunteer walked in, told me about the program and asked me if I wanted to be interviewed. Well, I’m hardly a shy person, I’m a recovering politician. So I said, of course.

Hall’s interview was part of a program called My Life, My Story. Psychologists began piloting it at the Madison VA hospital in 2013. They wanted a way for providers to know their patients better. Today, the program is in nearly 50 VA hospitals across the country.

Here’s how it works. VA staff and volunteers spend about an hour interviewing a patient. Then they write up a 1-thousand word account of his or her life story. That story is added to the veteran’s electronic patient file for doctors and nurses to read. The hospital also gives family members as many copies as they want.

Robert Hall says after he told his story, his interactions with the nurses and doctors changed.

HALL: I’d be talking to a nurse or a doctor that was working on me and he said, oh, I read your life story on the, in, on the computerized patient records system. And yeah, you did such and such in here and you are a politician and this and that, you know. So I thought, boy, this is a really great program.

Hall liked his experience with the program so much he became a volunteer. So far he’s recorded more than 200 veteran stories.

Thor Ringler is the national My Life, My Story program manager at the Madison VA hospital. He says physicians also really like the program.

RINGLER: We’ve asked them the sort of, the two biggest questions… is reading these stories a good use of your time and will it help you provide better care? And for both of those questions we’ve gotten really positive responses from providers.

Ringler says that’s because the stories help fill a gap in modern healthcare: connection between patients and physicians.

RINGLER: The efficiency of the system has really narrowed the amount of time that doctors get to spend with their patients. I think providers really relish the opportunity to get to know more of the details of their patients’ lives and get to know more about them.

When both families and physicians read the finished story, they’re often surprised. Ringler says that’s because for many veterans the interview is the first time they’ve ever sat back and just reflected.

RINGLER: I’m surprised sort of consistently by the number of times that mental health providers will tell me, you know, I’ve been seeing this patient for 15 years and everything in that story was new to me. There’s a lot of surprise from family members of stories that they’ve never heard from the veteran. And, and obviously that’s pretty meaningful for them to be able to have that story and that history that they weren’t able to hear before.

Sharing those surprising stories can also be healing for the veteran. Thor Ringler interviewed Bonnie Morelock last year.

Morelock served as a military nurse in the late 60s. During her interview, Morelock says she shared a secret she’d been holding for half a century.

MORELOCK: There was a first sergeant who tried to molest me and I got very angry and I hit him. I got busted. I got two weeks, two months pay taken away.  I was punished, not him. So I never told anybody, but I told Thor.

Morelock says she never told anyone because she was embarrassed. She thought no one would understand. And, plus, no one had ever really asked her about her life. Morelock says sharing her story was a release she didn’t know she needed.

MORELOCK: I think he helped the healing. It was something that, you know, when you hold something back for a very long time and Thor had a way of just kind of letting me talk and out it came and I felt relief afterwards and I was able to hold my head up, say this was not my fault. This was something I’d held in for 50 years. And I think My Life, My Story has really done wonders at not only listening to the vets but hearing them.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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