Lee Courtnage helps veterans tell their stories

There are stories out there that need to be told and they need to be told soon, before the opportunity is lost forever. 

This sense of urgency isn't lost on OASIS volunteer Lee Courtnage, a retired special education professor, who wants to hear and record what our nation's aging veterans have to say, especially those who witnessed and lived through World War II.

Courtnage was already interested in World War II, when he learned about the Veterans History Project, a national effort funded by Congress in 2000. He'd read and researched a fair amount about that particular war on his own, and agreed with the project's originators that a critical perspective was missing from the history books: the stories from the men who were in the trenches.

Working with Albuquerque OASIS, he estimates that he's interviewed 108 WW II veterans during the last four years, coming away with unique recollections that are preserved in an ever-growing national archive of live audio and video recordings that will be available to researchers and scholars for years to come.

"In most cases, these guys never told their stories, not even to their own family members," he says.

Courtnage believes the initial reluctance to retrieve and share memories from that particular conflict is true to that generation.

"Many think their stories wouldn't be of interest to anyone. In general, these men and women are very modest. They are proud that they served their country, but they don't want to brag about it. These soldiers were supported while they fought and were celebrated when they returned home. The 'greatest generation' didn't dwell on what they did. They just came back and got back to work."

Once coaxed by volunteers like Courtnage to share over a cup of coffee their wartime memories, these veterans weave touching tales of truth that provide a vivid, almost incomprehensible sense of reality to a war that resulted in what Courtnage describes as "mammoth destruction of human life."

"Many of these men and women went through hell," says Courtnage. "Their memories are very intact. We wouldn't have any of this if it wasn't for the Veterans History Project." The stories are available at the Library of Congress.

Courtnage feels strongly enough about the work he's doing with veterans that he's recruited and trained six more OASIS volunteers to do the same. But, he isn't interested in giving up his role as an interviewer any time soon.

"If you're going to volunteer, it has to be something that you think is fun. You want to do something you like," he says. "I look forward to these interviews."