Veterans Curation Project: Those who make history help preserve it
October 25, 2010
By Alan Dooley
There is a link between mountains of prehistoric and historical artifacts, documents and records and Soldiers transitioning to civilian life.
The Veterans Curation Project, which helps Soldiers become successful civilians, while meeting the need to properly curate some of the nation's historical treasures, is that link.
Using $3.5 million in seed money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has established three pilot VCP projects in areas home to large numbers of wounded and other veterans. Centers have been established in Augusta, Ga., St. Louis and Washington. Additional funding in fiscal 2011 would allow the project to continue for at least one more year.
The project was conceived by Dr. Michael "Sonny" Trimble, director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Center of Expertise for Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections, located in St. Louis. It is being conducted with cooperation from the Department of Veterans Affairs and organizations such as the Central Savannah River Area Wounded Warrior Core Project. Project participants are employed, earning full-time or part-time salaries as they learn.
The VCP has two goals. First, veterans receive valuable training from professional archaeological laboratory management specialists in technical skills such as: digital photography, scanning, cataloging, database and records management, preserving historical documents and making all the information available to researchers and historians online.
Second, veterans are helping the Corps of Engineers work through a backlog of artifacts, images and records from decades of engineering projects. "We estimate there are materials, stored artifacts and other items, that would fill 30 semi-trailers-and this is in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone," Trimble said.
"This isn't 'make-work,'" he emphasized. "Properly documenting these items is required by the National Historical Preservation Act to preserve them, and their information, for study and educational purposes. It is unfinished business. It's federal law and it is our responsibility.
"We aren't trying to turn these Soldiers into archaeologists or anthropologists," he added. "But the skills they are gaining, the processes they are learning, relate directly to the growing field of record keeping in medical, insurance, financial and other professions."
Project participants in St. Louis praised the program.
"I have held a metate in my hands. That's a stone Native Americans used to grind grain," said eight-year Army veteran, Walter Sinnott IV. "When they ground the grain, tiny, abrasive flecks of stone would mix with the food.
"I have also held the flattened teeth of the people who produced and ate these foods, which ground their teeth down over years. It all became very real-not just intellectual, like a picture or a text about prehistoric America. I felt the connection between their tools and their lives. I felt I was able to touch these people."
Sinnott served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a fire support specialist. He spoke as he carefully smoothed wrinkles in an aging table-sized chart and map that had been tightly folded for 40-plus years. "We humidified this chart with hot water vapor for an hour. Then we dried it between blotter paper and I manually smoothed the folds. I'll repair any damage and then I have to figure out how best to preserve it for the future."
Sinnott said that after being discharged three years ago he first studied to become a computer engineer, but realized he wasn't suited for the work.
"I didn't want to spend my life in a cubicle; I have always been fascinated by outdoor characters like Indiana Jones. This experience is showing me I can do anything I want to do. If I (had) to choose today, (I'd) say I want to be a geologist," he said.
In a far corner of a room, Sean Box talked about how he wants to work with people as he stared at a computer screen, trying to conjure up the precise word he needed to "nail" a carefully crafted technical report of a study he was wrapping up.
Box, who spent six years in the Army as an engineer and mechanic, is awaiting knee-replacement surgery for a service-related injury. He described what he has gained from the VCP.
"In addition to technical skills, I'm learning not to speak 'Army,'" he said, referring to military jargon. "This isn't just learning computer skills. This is very real.
"I have also gained a new appreciation for those who have gone before me," Box mused. "They couldn't read and write, and I thought that made them stupid.
"But listen, I'm learning people have always been smart, just knowing how to live and figure out how to do what they did" he said, grinning. "And this experience has taught me that there's a lot more to life than TV. I read a lot more now and want to know more and more. We had a daughter a year ago, and I want her to be proud of me. I want to be her role model as a Daddy."
Between Sinnott and Box, Trey Stone, who served five years in the Army, reviewed a collection of documents to confirm their proper disposition. "I am learning technical skills, like photography," he said. "I am studying criminal justice at Kaplan University, and the photographic skills I have learned and used here may earn me college credits and help me complete my education sooner."
Stone drew connections between forensic and documentation skills needed to curate materials and similar methodology in police work.
"This is giving me hands-on skills I can use in what I want to do in the future. Holding artifacts and imagining how someone might have used them a thousand years ago is something that will help me visualize a crime scene and how seemingly insignificant things may be keys to solving a crime."
In addition to the technical skills, Stone said. "I'm gaining people skills. I'm getting help building a resume to tell potential employers about what I can do for them. They are helping me learn how to relate better to civilians. You cannot order them to do things like you could with Soldiers."
"This is a win-win for America," Dr. Trimble said after returning from opening the VCP in Washington. "Information on large amounts of materials that were undocumented and unavailable for study, are emerging to fill gaps in our historical knowledge.
"At the same time, veterans, to whom we owe a great deal for their service and sacrifices, are being prepared for post-service civilian employment and lives," he added. That will serve them today and in the future. This repays a debt to the past, the present and the future."
In an unexpected way, Soldiers are finding connections and gaining wisdom from reaching across centuries to touch America's earliest peoples.
"I never even dreamed this kind of work existed," one veteran said as he looked at a pottery shard, turning it over carefully in white-gloved hands. "Wow, this is exciting," for those who study history, and for the Soldiers who have made it.