Wisconsin Veterans Share Stories for Museum's Oral History Archives

May 30, 2016

For decades, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum has been collecting the personal stories of people who've served in the military. They reflect on their time in uniform, the impact of their service, and their thoughts about it today.     

Some of the reflections the veterans share are intense, especially those recalling fallen soldiers. Other stories are mundane at first, before becoming dramatic.

"I remember writing home to my parents that well, there's nothing going on here, it was kind of boring...after I wrote that letter home, the next day we were shot down," says Tom Daly. He's a Marine who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. He was a door gunner when his helicopter was attacked.

"When I first saw the muzzle flash out in the jungle I thought it was a streetlight. That's the city kid in me, telling me that's a streetlight. And the pilot said, 'shoot.' And then another one opened up and then another one opened up, so they were really trying to knock us down out of the air," Daly says.

Daly vividly remembers shooting back. It's as if it was happening today.

"I can smell the helicopter. I can smell the gas being burnt, the exhaust from it. I can smell the gunpowder. I can feel the barrel on the gun, you know, it was hot," Daly says.

Daly's memories are among the hundreds the Wisconsin Veterans Museum has gathered over the years. It recently reenergized the project, hiring a full-time oral historian, and creating a digital archive. The vets' stories begin with why people chose to serve.

"(I) couldn't really afford to go to school, I figured, well, gotta continue my education somehow," says Clinton Grigg. He served in the Army from 1984 to 1992. He talks about his deployment to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield.

"It was peacetime. I never expected to get sent anywhere...I didn't really follow the news too much at the time so I didn't really know what was going on over there 'til things actually happened, and then all of the sudden we're getting ready to deploy over to Saudi Arabia," Grigg says.

Grigg recalls everyday life there -- things like sleeping in huge white tents with colorful interiors, and the sand that was so hot that you could use it to warm up packaged food.

Todd Hartwig expected a similar climate when he was sent to Iraq, but was surprised.

"There was canals everywhere, everything was green, swamp grass everywhere, mosquitoes, bugs, they had little digger bugs that dig in you until their feet were sticking (out). Oh, they were nasty," Hartwig says.

It was 2004, about two-thirds into Hartwig's 29-year career in the Army. Hartwig was with a team tasked with both destroying -- and locating -- roadside bombs.

"Drive around until one blows up or you find them. Look for the bad guys. Do night operations. Hide out by the roads. Watch them for digging. They had curfews, too -- I mean rules --- no nighttime, you know, anybody's out there, it's AIF, anti-Iraqi forces," Hartwig says.

Hartwig says he was near more than 200 blasts, and as a result, developed Traumatic Brain Injury.

"I couldn't think right, I was slurring my words, I'd say stuff that I was thinking different...I thought I was messed up, going crazy...then one day I read an article about TBI and I said, 'there's 13 symptoms of it and I've got every one of them,'" Hartwig says.

Hartwig's oral history includes his challenges getting medical care when he came home. Other vets' stories address trouble they had finding work. And a number discuss PTSD and substance abuse. Yet Hartwig is among those who say they'd serve again, if given the chance to turn back the clock. He explains what motivated him to stay in the Army for three decades.

"Camaraderie and love for the country, pretty much. Duty, honor...all wrapped up into one," Hartwig says.