Project tells sometimes harrowing stories of vets

The goal of the Veterans History Project is to capture first-hand accounts of what it is like to serve in the military, often in war-torn corners of the world.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer of the 6th Congressional District is encouraging veterans across Kitsap County to talk about serving overseas to preserve the conversations for prosperity.

Retired Army soldier Don Ray Hill of Poulsbo recently sat down in front of a tape recorder to talk about the project and his harrowing experiences during the Vietnam conflict. Hill’s account will soon become part of the Veterans History Project, run by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Hill recalled the numerous times his base was attacked in the middle of the night, sending him to crouch in a bunker, praying incoming enemy fire would miss him. “I was over there during the Tet Offensive…We got hit by mortars and rockets many nights while at base camp,” recalled the 73-year-old, whose job was to hoist 200-pound shells into field artillery “cannons.”

During one attack he remembered: “I ran out. I managed to get my weapon, my flak vest and my helmet. When I was in the bunker I yelled, ‘Incoming!’ so everyone else would come out. We got hit with rockets and mortars. Some landed eight to 10 feet from where we were. Sandbags protected us from shrapnel.”

The longest attack lasted 30 minutes. “It seemed like forever. Sure, we were scared,” recounted Hill, one of the few who escaped serious injury during his deployment.

After serving in Southeast Asia, Hill came home emotionally scarred. “It took me a year or two before I could settle down and feel comfortable. War puts you on edge [and] some guys never recover. Once I was standing outside and a car backfired. I hit the ground. Your body just responds after being in a war.”

In addition to the psychological issues Hill, the then 20-year-old, had to contend with some fellow Americans who heaped scorn on him for going to Vietnam. “We were treated like we were criminals. They were saying we were baby killers and all kinds of things,” he said. “Those against the war were angry at the White House, but they took it out on us. I was a soldier. Wherever they sent us, I had to go. We were just following orders.”

People around the world will be able to listen to his story on the Library of Congress website. The mission of the Veterans History Project is to collect stories and make them accessible for future generations. Kilmer eagerly supports the project. “I represent more military veterans than almost anybody in Congress,” he said. “Part of the reason our community is as strong as it is is because we have so many veterans who call our region their home.”

More than 34,000 military veterans reside in Kitsap County, according to the state Department of Veteran Affairs. In addition, Kitsap includes an estimated 17,000 active duty soldiers, many of them at Naval Base Kitsap, the Navy’s third-largest fleet concentration in the U.S.

“I thought this was a great opportunity to share stories to celebrate the men and women of our region who have served our country,” the congressman said. “I’m just struck often when I engage with military veterans who will tell me a story about their time in service. I find myself thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish other people could hear that,’ because they are such inspiring stories.”

Such stories are important to history. “The opportunity to elevate those who have served and to share those stories I think is really important. By capturing those stories, it ensures the sacrifice of these veterans and their families remains part of collective memory,” Kilmer said.

The project collects and preserves firsthand narratives of U.S. military veterans who served during World War I and later conflicts. Audio- and video-recorded oral history interviews are included. Photographs, letters, diaries and other historical documents from those who served are also part of the project. The project is an all-volunteer effort.

BI, Bremerton, too

Akuyea Karen Vargas, an Army veteran from Bainbridge Island, has volunteered to meet and interview vets to document their stories. “The satisfaction I get from doing this is to be able to share and preserve the stories and sacrifice of the soldiers, so they won’t be lost,” Vargas said. “I think it’s valuable and important that we are able to preserve the history of those soldiers and share their stories.”

Vargas served in the 2nd, 8th and 34th infantry divisions in Korea, Mannheim, Germany, and Fort Hood in Texas. She fed troops by serving as a food specialist/dietitian. Vargas has been recording the stories of soldiers and documenting the accomplishments of fallen military members for nine years.

Vargas played a significant role in preserving the memory of Black Navy chief John Henry Turpin of Bremerton. Turpin is credited with saving the lives of over a dozen service personnel on the gunboat USS Bennington and the USS Maine, both of which suffered explosions.

Vargas was instrumental in getting Kilmer to push Congress to pass a bill in 2020 to have the landmark Bremerton post office on Pacific Avenue renamed after Turpin. She volunteered to record recollections with the Kitsap County African American Historical Society to preserve the accounts of indigenous and African American troops. She did similar work with the 172nd American Legion on BI and for the Living Arts Cultural Heritage Project in Kitsap.

Hill sees the project as a way community members can experience military life and hear about how it impacted those in uniform. “People can learn about what really happened, what went down over there. It will give them an idea about what we were up against.”

For more info

To listen to and view oral and video accounts of veterans, go to Veterans History Project website:

Veterans who would like to share their experiences while serving and those interested in being trained on how to conduct interviews of veterans for the project can contact Kilmer’s Bremerton office at 360-373-9725.