Veterans Curation Program marks five years of preserving history

By J.D. LeipoldDecember 8, 2014

Veterans Curation Program
1 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Former Air Force Staff Sgt. Jessica Costello sorts prehistoric projectile points known as lithics at the Veterans Curation Program Lab in Alexandria, Va. Thirty-one former Service members from the four branches are currently working at three labs for... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Veterans Curation Program
2 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Henry Puppe inspects a carbon artifact at the Veterans Curation Program Lab in Alexandria, Va. Thirty-one former Service members from the four branches are currently working at three labs learning how to process, p... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Veterans Curation Program
3 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Former Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines work in the Veterans Curation Program lab in Alexandria, Va., where they how to process, photograph, rehabilitate and rehouse prehistoric and historic artifacts discovered by archaeologists at various Army... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Veterans Curation Program
4 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Former Marine Cpl. Nick Gervasoni archives prehistoric ceramic artifacts called sherds at the Veterans Curation Program Lab in Alexandria, Va. Thirty-one former Service members work at three labs on artifacts discovered at Army Corps of Engineer exca... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Veterans Curation Program
5 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Veterans Curation Program
6 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Former Spc. Rolando Sanchez demonstrates how a computer-assisted photographic copy system works at the Veterans Curation Program Lab in Alexandria, Va. Thirty-one former Service members from the four branches work at three labs on artifacts discovere... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Veterans Curation Program
7 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Former Service members from the four branches attend the fifth anniversary celebration of the Veterans Curation Program, Dec. 3, 2014. Currently, 31 men and women work as technicians at the Alexandria, Va., St. Louis, and Augusta, Ga., labs on histor... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Veterans Curation Program
8 / 8 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy speaks at the fifth anniversary of the Veterans Curation Program in Alexandria, Va., Dec. 3, 2014, as Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick looks on. The Veterans Curation Program h... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 5, 2014) -- An innovative program that helps veterans of all services gain a variety of new skills while helping the nation curate its archaeological artifacts celebrated its fifth year, Wednesday.

Created in 2009, the Veterans Curation Program, or VCP, was set up by the Army Corps of Engineers at three labs: one in Alexandria, Virginia; another in St. Louis; and one in Augusta, Georgia.

The vets spend five months learning modern archiving techniques and moving through the intricacies of processing, photographing, rehabilitating and rehousing prehistoric and historic artifacts. Artifacts range from stone tools and projectile points called lithics, to pottery sherds, clay smoking pipe pieces and military insignia, which have been discovered by archaeologists at more than 400 USACE projects over the last century.

To date, about 955 cubic feet of artifacts -- 70 linear feet of records -- have been rehabilitated and more than 38,000 photographs have been created by the VCP, according to Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy.

"This incredible program is a positive and innovative way to put our returning veterans and disabled veterans to work while protecting and caring for our nation's archaeological materials and associated records," she said, adding that, "no group of people has done more to forge our national identity throughout history than the veterans who have served and sacrificed for the nation."

Some 203 veterans have worked full- or part-time at competitive salaries, passing through the peer-to-peer program, and 153 of them have since found permanent employment or enrolled in university and certificate programs.

The Army's Chief Engineer Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick noted that the VCP was not only a way for the services to follow up on their promises to help veterans transition with new-found skills, it also allows the vets to continue serving by preserving pieces of history.

"This program benefits our veterans, the Army corps and the nation by helping us process vital archaeological collections and preserve our cultural heritage," he said. "To the veterans here today, and the many others you represent who have been part of this program -- we are deeply grateful for your service. I commend you for taking the next step as you transition from military to civilian life and wish you great success in your future endeavors."

Following the ceremony, guests were given a tour of the Alexandria VCP Lab, where 13 veterans are presently employed. They are a month into their training, much of which is conducted by lab manager Jasmine Heckman, who holds a master's of museum studies and previously worked for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. She's been with the VCP since its creation.

"When this opportunity came up, I was very excited," she said. "I have three older brothers, all on active duty in the Army, and a sister-in-law who is a veteran of the Air Force. This was really a perfect opportunity for me to be able to give back, and because I have always really enjoyed teaching and mentoring."

Heckman said she's been really passionate about helping people find their niche, specifically veterans, because it can be difficult coming out of the military suddenly and having to figure out what steps to take toward entering the civilian workforce.

While most of the veterans don't move on toward studies in anthropology or one of its subfields, such as archaeology, two former Soldiers are doing a special project for the USACE office of history digitizing photographs of military insignia from World War I through Vietnam.

"I think skills that are learned here are definitely a good way to transfer and translate into different fields, but I think a lot of people who are interested in applying for these positions have an interest in where things came from, learning about human history and studying that history through human artifacts, and that's always a fun treat for me," she said.

A former staff sergeant and Persian Dari linguist, Jessica Costello separated from the Air Force after nearly nine years of service and a deployment to Afghanistan, but she's only out until she finishes her bachelor's degree with a major in political science and a minor in criminology at the University of Maryland.

She was just one of 13 selected Air Force-wide for SOAR, or the Scholarship for Outstanding Airman to ROTC program. As soon as she has her degree in hand, she'll be commissioned and back on active duty. While the Air Force covers her tuition and fees, she's responsible for her housing and other expenses, part of which is covered by her GI Bill.

"I found out about the VCP through a co-worker who had separated a few months before I did and had gone through the program, so I researched, got on the phone with Jasmine who told me the next session didn't start until November," she said. "I decided to wait until then because the program just sounded so interesting and different to me, something I really wanted to try."

Costello added that in many ways the VCP is a building block on some things she already knew, but a real plus is that each time an artifact is processed, the quality check is reviewed by fellow veterans who offer constructive criticism on each other's work, then use that criticism as a checkpoint for themselves.

"It's a fantastic transitional program and being with other veterans at the same time provides a great support network," she said, adding that the program is more than just employment. "About halfway through the program, we're offered professional development time -- we'll get guidance on how to write our resumes and go through mock interview sessions."

Army public affairs broadcast specialist and former Sgt. Gregory Boster had five years active-duty time and a deployment to Afghanistan, but left the service, he said, primarily because he had started a family, had two small children and one more on the way.

"I didn't feel it was the right environment for me and I didn't want to be away from my family, so I felt the change was necessary and decided to be closer to home, which is northern Virginia where I grew up," he said, adding that when he separated 18 months ago he was certain about his career direction.

"Sports is the only thing that really stuck with me my entire life, growing up playing baseball, basketball, football, and then I realized as I got older, how other interests would fade, but not sports, which has always stayed with me and something I really love," he said.

Currently using his GI Bill at Northern Virginia Community College and focusing on a transfer to a four-year university, Boster is looking for a career in sports management, which encompasses a broad range of possibilities in the sports world, from the media side, which he learned through the Army to being a sports agent, to coaching or even becoming a physical trainer.

Boster was told about the VCP by one of his Northern Virginia Community College professors. It sounded interesting and challenging and has turned out to be worth the 90-minute daily commute, he said.

"One specific factor in this job that I really related to is the attention to detail that has to be done because what we do is going to be done permanently. It's your hands that are touching these items and that will have a permanent impact on the future, because the notations we make will be used by scientists and in research," he said. "We make the notations because we know it's a stone tool. Without those notations, most people would just pass it off as just another rock."

"I was skeptical about coming here, because I had never done a desk job. I was always an on-the-ground kind of guy, so sitting behind a desk I couldn't fathom," said Nicholas Gervasoni, who spent seven years in the Marine Corps as an military policeman before being medically retired last month, due to back injuries and post-traumatic stress suffered in Afghanistan.

No longer feeling skeptical, he's been learning to adjust to the idea that he can't do many of the same things he always took for granted before his injuries. He said processing artifacts has been challenging, but working with fellow veterans has helped restore a sense of leadership and responsibility he felt he'd lost.

"After this program, I'm applying for The Mission Continues, the service dog company that I received Penny, my golden retriever through," he said. "Becoming a trainer would be very rewarding in the fact that you get to work with beautiful dogs in the first place -- that's a plus, and to know they're going to a veteran who needs help makes it really a win-win scenario."

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