One corner of Marin Catholic High School's banquet hall was plastered with typed-up biographies and photos of Marin County military veterans one night last week. It was a showcase of many months of hard work from a handful of high school students who decided to dedicate themselves to the Honoring Our Marin Veterans Oral History Project, and visitors at the third annual Stars and Stripes Dinner that night were wowed by the effort.
Founded by Greenbrae resident and Marin Catholic High senior Nick Elsbree, the project is a collaboration with the Marin History Museum and the U.S. Library of Congress, which lent support after Rep. Lynn Woolsey got wind of it.
"I have learned the importance of duty, sacrifice, and patriotism," Elsbree said. "More importantly, I grew to understand what true courage and valor mean."
More than 130 interviews and subsequent writeups have been completed and posted to the Honoring Our Marin Veterans website. But Elsbree's work, along with that of more than 30 other student volunteers, has created a logjam of assignments. It's gone so well that there are more veterans signed up to share their tales than there are student volunteers. Rather than recruiting more veterans at this point, they're recruiting teens who have a passion for history, journalism, video/tech skills, public service and honoring our veterans.
"There is a backlog of at least 100 veterans to be interviewed," said Mary Elsbree, Nick's mother and the adult supervisor on the project.
Many veterans were on hand for the Stars and Stripes dinner at Marin Catholic, hosted by Building Better Citizens for America, a nonprofit created to support the countywide U.S. Air Force Junior ROTC program based at Novato High School. The event featured a fundraiser auction, a POW/MIA observance, the presentation of a financial gift from American Legion Post 313 and a speech by guest speaker Captain Cynthia Stowe, the U.S. Coast Guard's commander of the San Francisco sector.
For the history project, the high school students interview a veteran at home or a private setting and the video/audio footage is transcribed, leading to a narrative account of the vet's service. All videos are submitted to the Library of Congress Veteran Oral History Project and copies of each narrative are provided to the veteran as a personal history plus to the Marin History Museum for safekeeping.
Elsbree, a top academic performer at Marin Catholic who has an eye on medical school, said he hopes volunteers with the project eventually interview every living military veteran in Marin.
After hearing and relaying stories about the assault on Iwo Jima, the brutal winter conditions during the Battle of the Bulge and the jungle tactics in Vietnam, he called the project his "most meaningful contribution to my community."
He has been contacted by veterans and their family members from around the country about starting such efforts elsewhere. People searching for long-lost friends have reconnected because of information about the interviews found on the Internet.
"I have learned to connect with, and relate to, veterans who are normally reticent to speak about their service and to persuade them to tell me their stories," he said. "More than anything, I learned that there is a strong sense of brotherhood and pride in all veterans and that their stories need to be celebrated by their countrymen and shared with future generations."
He said the project has profoundly changed him as well.
"Through the sacrifices of veterans, I have realized how precious life is and how grateful I am, and should be, for the life I have and the good fortune bestowed upon me," Elsbree said. "I have also learned not to yield in the face of disappointment and injustice, to believe in myself, and to fight for my convictions. In moments of difficulty, I reflect on the lives of the veterans I have met, their convictions, and their refusals to give up. I find strength in their words, and in myself, and I will remember their stories as I go through life."
Peter Jake Daniels, a Drake High freshman, has vowed to take over the history project after Elsbree takes off for college. But they're going to need more students to step up, especially because World War II veterans are not getting any younger. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 925-1393.