MSU vet

Marcus “Doc” Cravens, director of the Montana State University Veteran History and Arts Initiative is pictured with a collection of photos from his project, American Veteran, in the MSU Veteran Support Center Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 in Bozeman. Cravens, a veteran and MSU alumnus, curated the first exhibit from the VHAI titled “Project 513” that opens Friday, Dec. 6. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

An exhibit of photos and audio recognizing the experiences of 12 local veterans – the first public event of a new Montana State University initiative designed to preserve and honor the history of Montana’s veterans – will be held next month in Bozeman.

“Project 513” will be open to the public 5-8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, at The Market at Ferguson Farm located on Valley Commons Drive in Bozeman. A short presentation will be made at 6 p.m. The event is free, and everyone is invited to attend.

“This project is putting faces and voices to what the (MSU Veteran History and Arts Initiative) is all about,” said Marcus “Doc” Cravens, director of the MSU Veteran History and Arts Initiative, who is also a veteran and an MSU alumnus.

Cravens said the Veteran History and Arts Initiative aims to obtain, preserve and honor the history of U.S. veterans in Montana. It also works to educate and inspire thoughtful creativity through diverse perspectives within the arts and humanities so that veterans’ history is never forgotten. As part of the initiative, volunteers record oral interviews of Montana veterans who served in the U.S. military. Any veteran in any of Montana’s 56 counties, from those who served in World War II to those who are currently serving, are eligible to participate. Each interview that is collected will then live in MSU Library’s Special Collections and Archives. The idea, Cravens said, is that by housing the interviews in Special Collections, the veterans’ stories will never be lost.

The initiative has several additional projects. In its first, “Project 513,” Cravens and MSU associate professor of history, Molly Todd, are piloting a collaboration this semester through History 513, a graduate seminar focusing on oral history methodologies. As the graduate and advanced undergraduate students enrolled in the course learn about the evolution of the field of oral history and the associated theories and professional ethics, they are also applying what they learn to interviews with Montana veterans. With guidance from Todd and Cravens, students are conducting interviews, transcribing those interviews and then sharing select portions at the Dec. 6 public exhibit. The exhibit will also feature photos made by Cravens of the veterans and their interviewers.

In another part of the Veteran History and Arts Initiative known as “A Published Project,” volunteers will help record the memoirs of veterans. “‘A Published Project’ is built on the belief that everyone has a story, and that story deserves to be told,” Cravens said.

Another project of the initiative, called “Living Memories,” is a photographic essay that documents tattoos of or related to veterans, as well as the stories behind those tattoos. The essay is tentatively scheduled to be exhibited in February.

Finally, the initiative’s “Shadows of our Past” project pairs local artists and businesses with families of veterans who have died. The artists will work with the families to create a unique and meaningful way to showcase the veterans’ service medals and other keepsakes. “Shadows of our Past” is scheduled to be exhibited in May.

The MSU Veteran History and Arts Initiative is supported by a two-year, $200,000 Humanities, Art and Social Sciences Grant from MSU, with the possibility the grant may be extended for a third year. At its core, the initiative and its projects are intended to create connections among veterans and individuals throughout their communities, Cravens said.

“We’re working to connect students and individuals to veterans, their memories and histories,” Cravens said. “It all comes down to how we are connected. It comes down to being human. Ultimately, we are searching for ways to connect our past with future generations by using art as (a way of communicating). We want to build connections and open new lines of communication.”

Debby Greene, a doctoral student in American studies, is interviewing veteran Mike Everett as part of her work in Todd’s oral history class. Everett served in the Marine Corps and was deployed in the Iraq War for four years. He has a degree in Earth sciences from MSU and now works as a water resource specialist for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Bozeman.

The Veteran History and Arts Initiative is “a great project because it empowers everyday people to help collect the stories of our state’s veterans,” Greene said. “This creates community for veterans so there is less feeling of being separate. When volunteers, high school kids, retirees are asking for veterans’ stories, this demonstrates … that everybody is veteran.” 

It’s a new concept for Greene, and one that she said she learned from Everett.

“Mike believes that we are all part of the veteran community because we all know and interact with veterans,” Greene said. “This was a perspective I’d never thought of before: that veterans are all of us. It had a profound impact on me because it doesn’t make the veteran community separate and builds more of a sense of a support community for actual veterans who served our country as well as their families. To take a veteran’s story and then share it with a greater community, whether it be a rural town or Bozeman, has a positive impact on the veteran, their families and the community.”

Everett said he enjoyed talking with Greene and would recommend the experience of sharing an oral history to other veterans.

“It was really good to think about how someone from a different point of view would understand what I was saying,” he said. “And it was good to think about how to (communicate) my experiences more clearly to an outside audience.”

Everett said it often feels like veterans are stereotyped, and he hopes that people who attend the Dec. 6 event come away with a more complete and accurate understanding of the veterans whose histories are shared there.

“There is a stigma of a combat veteran being damaged goods, but I don’t think people should assume that,” he said. “I would like people to know we’re just normal people.”

Cravens said there is a sense of urgency that accompanies the MSU Veteran History and Arts Initiative.

“About 300 to 350 World War II veterans pass each day, with Korean War veterans right behind,” Cravens said. “Vietnam vets have the highest rate of suicide, with (Iraq War and Afghanistan War veterans) right behind them. We’ll lose this piece of history if we don’t communicate it to and preserve it for future generations.”

“All these stories are so important to record and keep,” Greene said.

To learn more about the MSU Veteran History and Arts Initiative, visit https://www.montana.edu/vhai/.