AUGUSTA -- Arkansas' senior U.S. Sen. John Boozman settled into a low-sitting couch in a cramped Woodruff County living room. On this day, the camera wasn't fixed on him.
Instead of answering questions, Boozman was asking them.
"It's Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017," the Rogers Republican started.
"We're here to get Buddy's reflections about the war."
Buddy, as just about anyone in Augusta will tell you, is Jesse Matthew Trice. The World War II Army veteran was born 100 years ago in this sleepy White River town.
"Right down the hill," Trice tells Boozman, pointing out the window toward the neighborhood where he grew up.
It's a big day for Augusta, if the guests in the green-carpeted sitting room are any indication. There's the mayor, the sheriff, the director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, Trice's family and a reporter from Woodruff County's newspaper meticulously recording the happenings.
It's not often a sitting U.S. senator visits Augusta, population 2,000.
The visit is also a special one for Boozman, who over the past 2½ years has started recording the stories of men and women like Trice.
For the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, Boozman and his staff have recorded interviews with about 40 veterans, and they've trained more than 400 Arkansans to conduct and submit interviews themselves.
It's personal for Boozman. His father died before he was able to have a lengthy conversation about the elder Boozman's experiences as a B-17 waist gunner in the Europe during World War II.
"Sadly, we never really talked about the war at any length," Boozman said in a phone interview. "I asked him once what he remembered; he remembered it being cold."
Congress authorized the Veterans History Project in 2000, and former President Bill Clinton signed it into law. Since its inception, the Library of Congress has received submissions for more than 100,000 veterans.
While about 250,000 veterans call Arkansas home, the library has received only about 1,200 submissions for Arkansas veterans.
The most common materials entered are video and audio interviews, letters, postcards, diaries, memoirs, photographs, drawings, scrapbooks and other materials that help tell first-person stories about veterans' experiences.
Boozman said preserving veterans' stories is important, especially now. As the military has shifted away from the draft to a volunteer force, the percentage of the population serving in the military has decreased.
"Before, almost everyone stood up in church on the Fourth of July because everyone had direct experience with the military," Boozman said.
Each interview begins the same -- date of birth, place of birth, branch of service and other biographical information. But soon, the questions typically stop as the veteran starts to remember, taking themselves and those in the room decades back and miles away.
"The common thread that strikes me is when we start talking about the past you can see a twinkle in their eye," said Boozman, who has conducted several interviews himself.
During the Augusta interview, Trice described how he joined the Army and ended up in France during World War II. Several officers took a liking to Trice, so his duties kept him away from the front line.
But the interview soon took a turn out of the senator's control.
Trice joked about some of the European women his unit encountered overseas and his comrades' efforts to woo them, sending the room roaring into laughter as Boozman grinned sheepishly.
Trice, who was one of the first black men to own a business in Woodruff County, spoke frankly about race and his experience returning to the U.S. as a black man. He was turned away from a St. Louis restaurant after returning from the war because of his race.
"Always tell the truth, pay your bills, and you've got it made," Trice said several times.
Anita Deason, a retired Air Force colonel who now serves as Boozman's military and veterans liaison, has conducted most of the office's interviews.
Like Boozman, she too never talked to her father about his World War II service.
"Oh my goodness, that's always going to be a place I can never heal," Deason said. "Every time I interview a veteran, it is kind of like a tribute to my dad."
She recently interviewed a Vietnam veteran on a breezy Sunday in downtown Little Rock. Ken Ziemer, 78, of Yellville served as an Army pharmacy specialist in Vietnam.
Ziemer's interview was much less lighthearted than Trice's. At several points, emotions overcame Ziemer, and the camera was turned off for a few minutes as he collected himself.
Deason has a way of connecting with veterans. In Ziemer's case, she quietly nudged him along, offering comforting anecdotes about her own time in the military when the emotions were too much.
Ziemer recalled his service from start to finish with vivid details, including the frozen cornfields when he returned home to Wisconsin on leave, and the stench of rats atop his grass hooch during the Vietnamese rainy season.
"That about sums it up," Ziemer concluded after nearly two hours.
In an upscale home in Little Rock's west side, Deason flipped through a 70-year-old scrapbook with news stories profiling World War II veterans with Arkansas connections.
She smiled broadly then tapped her finger on a clipping.
"That's you," she said, turning to 95-year-old Carl Koone of Little Rock.
Koone smiled and waved away her praise. In a gray hat, a blue and turquoise plaid shirt underneath a tan Ralph Lauren jacket and tan pants with creases down the legs, Koone's eyes crinkled, and he answered with humor each time Deason picked up an item from the vast collection of memorabilia spread over the dining room table.
Pictures of a handsome and youthful Koone in full uniform as a B-17 waist gunner for the United States Army Air Forces' 15th combat force peaked out from beneath timekeeping books, recreation coupons and journals detailing his time in North Africa and Italy.
Koone flew 50 successful missions before completing his tour of duty. He rolled his eyes, chuckled and waved away Deason as she cajoled him to tell the story of his Purple Heart, a military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving.
"It was only about a nickel's worth of blood," he said.
"Tell us about your Mae West," Deason said, eliciting a mischievous smile from Koone and laughter from surrounding family members. Mae West was a voluptuous movie star from the early to mid-1900s known for her brazen double entendres and unabashed sex appeal.
"We were flying over water," Koone began. "And we had to put on our Mae Wests."
Koone, still with the impish smile, mimicked donning an inflatable life vest. The preserver, designed and produced during World War II, was given the Mae West nickname because the chest area inflated when the wearer pulled two cords with knots on them.
The airplane came under attack, a hail of bullets pinged off the plane's metal interior. When it was over, Koone followed a hole that went through his life preserver and grazed his abdomen.
"I might have bled two drops of water," Koone said.
Ila Newberry, Koone's cousin, has spent days excavating memorabilia from Koone's military service, finding something new in every box she unearths. Participation in the Veteran's History Project has been cathartic for her, she said.
"I couldn't do it for my dad," Newberry said. "It's very rewarding to do it now for Carl."
For Lana Roach, the Veterans History Project has created an opportunity to reconnect with her father, a Vietnam veteran.
For years, she hated her father for abandoning his family, but recently, she watched a documentary series on the Vietnam War and plans to travel to see him this week. Roach went through training with Deason and she plans to interview her father, who was recently diagnosed with dementia, for the Library of Congress.
"It's going to be a very emotional time for me and my family," Roach said.
Boozman said the interviews give families like Roach's something to pass down through generations.
"This is important not only for the historical perspective but also for the families," he said.
World War II veteran Carl Koone shows off a photo of himself when he was 22 years old in 1944 during his time in the U.S. Army. Koone is one of many veterans in Arkansas to take part in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
Metro on 11/24/2017
Print Headline: Plumbing vets' memories is personal for Boozman