In 2020, former Army cavalry scout and sniper Garett Reppenhagen spoke with StoryCorps -- a nonprofit that chronicles the stories of everyday Americans -- as part of its Military Voices Initiative.
Reppenhagen recounted the time that he dressed up as his sergeant for Halloween, a prank that included stealing the noncommissioned officer's uniform. Despite the potentially serious consequences, Reppenhagen was not punished for his actions and instead emerged from the experience with a humorous story.
"I saw my share of combat and have plenty of sad and anxious stories, but I also have a lot of fun stories," Reppenhagen told Military.com. "I also wanted to show that there are more sides to military service than just combat and fighting. It's a holistic experience."
StoryCorps, which was launched in 2003, announced its 2023 Military Voices Initiative Tour earlier this month. The schedule:
- Maine: Virtual -- April 24-28; in-person (Portland) -- May 29-June 2
- Alaska: Virtual -- May 8-12; in-person (Anchorage) -- July 24-28
- Georgia: Virtual -- July 10-14; in-person (Savannah) -- Aug. 7-11
To make a free reservation, go to storycorps.org/military-voices. The virtual recording dates above are available only to those service members, veterans and military families in those respective states. Others can add to the more than 3,200 stories that have been shared through the Military Voices Initiative by going to StoryCorps Connect, a web-based platform, or the StoryCorps app; for those options, use the keyword "military voices."
"Most Americans really don't have an appreciation for what it means to serve in the military, and also the impact on military families as well," StoryCorps CEO Sandra M. Clark told Military.com. "... They all are about humanity. There's something so intimate when you're listening to an audio story of a service member or family member who really is revealing something about their lives that most people would never get to experience."
The Military Voices Initiative represents less than 1% of StoryCorps' overall inventory of approximately 347,000 recordings. While the stories can reveal in heartbreaking detail how difficult military service can be, especially in times of war, they can also be inspiring, funny and show how resilient those who wear the uniform and their loved ones are. Recordings can last as long as about 40 minutes.
Sometimes, those affiliated with the military don't even talk about their service, instead focusing on other aspects of their life. It's totally up to them because, according to StoryCorps, the storytellers are not encouraged or coached about what to say. A StoryCorps facilitator is there to listen and "nurse the conversation along," said Hazel Diaz, manager of the Military Voices Initiative.
"The ongoing joke is that they're usually there to decode the jargon, because [the idea for the interviews] is that they're supposed to be consumed by the public at any day or time," Diaz said. "So very often, [facilitators are] just asking them what they mean [from] a civilian point of view. ... Mostly, they're a fly on the wall to help people record, and they're there to do more of the technical work."
The Military Voices Initiative started in 2012 as a tribute to Army Spc. Matthew Bolar, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq five years earlier. Bolar's death occurred shortly after a StoryCorps mobile team connected with Gordon Bolar, Matthew's father and then the general manager of Western Michigan University's public radio station. Bolar reached out to StoryCorps to let it know of his son's death, and that note found its way to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. Bolar and Isay struck up a friendship, leading to the eventual decision to honor Matthew by amplifying other military voices. Originally, the initiative was limited to post-9/11 service members, vets and their families. In 2017, the scope was expanded to all U.S. conflicts.
"There's so much wisdom in these stories," Clark said. "They're so deeply honest."
StoryCorps contributes a story weekly that is broadcast on National Public Radio. With the storyteller's consent, the recordings are also archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
While Reppenhagen has contributed to the Military Voices Initiative, he more often is a listener. The stories have impacted him deeply, he said.
"The ones that involve combat or tragedy, I actually get a lot of catharsis from some of those stories," said Reppenhagen, the executive director of the nonprofit Veterans For Peace. "I get that reawoken sense of camaraderie with folks that are telling those stories. In a lot of ways, it helps them process that experience a little bit more, and [by] sharing that, they don't have to carry that burden by themselves. It's shared with the entire audience."
-- Stephen Ruiz can be reached at email@example.com.
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