At the end of last year, as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Standing Together initiative, we brought digitization equipment and cadre of skilled volunteers to the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH), the Southeast Veterans’ Services Center (SVSC), and the National Museum of the U.S. Navy (NMUSN) to digitally preserve veterans’ memories and treasured memorabilia. By the end of the series we’d collected 38 items including: medals, photographs, oral histories, and artwork.
Like the DC Digital Museum collection in its entirety, these 38 items represent a wide breadth of experience, and speak to a multitude of research and educational goals. The donors from the AFRH contributed materials that reflected on their civilian lives as well as their time in the service. Roger Polhemus’ contributions began with photos of his parents and grandparents before moving on to his own childhood and early life. It is only gradually that we begin to see his life as a serviceman take shape, and a page depicting his life at Fort Belvoir is still dominated by images of his wife and children. Polhemus spent 20 of his now 88 years in the United States Army, but his contributions suggest that his memories of family and domestic life loom the largest.
The items contributed by Catherine Deitch and Miriam Rivkin depict everyday life for young women
serving overseas during World War II. Coincidentally, Deitch and Rivkin both served with the Women’s Auxiliary Corps in India, and knew each other during the war. Years later they found themselves together again at the AFRH. Deitch’s images show her and her fellow service men and women celebrating Easter, touring Calcutta, while Rivkin’s sketches similarly depict scenes of everyday life over a background of extraordinary circumstances.
The SVSC provides transitional housing for Washington’s homeless and/or unemployed veterans. Many of them were unable to access their personal memorabilia or objects related to their service, but six provided brief oral history interviews. Again the breadth of experience was unexpectedly wide. Regina Paige Price served in Korea and the Persian Gulf. She had hoped to serve a full 20 year career in the military, a path she believed would lead to a better life for her family. An injury forced Price out of the military prematurely, an experience she still has difficulty discussing. Robert Martell Hill worked on a Navy aircraft carrier during the Persian Gulf War. In his interview he recalls a moment of sudden disturbing realization when he noticed that the fully equipped planes he was sending out were returning without extra fuel tanks or missiles.
The Washington Navy Yard employs thousands of current and former military personnel, and though only a few attended the YDCDM event held there, the items they donated speak to the pride young veterans feel about their time in the service, and about the reverence they feel towards the history and traditions of their respective units. We collected images of Shejal Pulivarti’s cavalry regalia and Commander Jeffrey B. Barta’s helicopter flight helmet bearing his unit’s logo and his individual callsign.
This year, the YDCDM program will continue, branching out to focus on communities and neighborhoods, but we will retain a focus on collecting and digitally preserving the personal collections of DC veterans.