Veteran Interview Essay

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Sample Interview Questions For Veterans

Here are questions to use when interviewing veterans who served in the United States armed forces during World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars.

A separate set of questions is available elsewhere for use when interviewing civilians (see also Sample Interview Questions for Civilians).

Tips for a Successful Interview

  • Every interview should contain several segments. Dividing an interview into segments allows for gathering important details while nurturing memory. In the case of the Veterans History Project, we are hoping to capture recollections of life experiences and of the most memorable moments in wartime. We also hope these interviews will shed light on how the veteran's service influenced his or her postwar life.
  • It is important to let the veteran tell his or her own story. The questions below were developed to provide general guidance only, so don't feel obliged to ask all the questions we are suggesting or to limit yourself to these questions.
  • Have the veteran complete the Biographical Data Form in advance of the interview. You will notice that some of the questions may not apply to the person you are interviewing. To avoid asking those questions, review the Biographical Data Form before the interview. It will help you ask the most relevant questions.
  • Feel free to share a few general questions with the participant beforehand. Often interviewees are more comfortable if they know what kinds of questions you might ask.
  • Prepare yourself for the interview by reading about the war(s) the veteran served in and by reviewing maps and atlases. Please refer to the bibliographies and research tips elsewhere in this Project Kit or ask a local librarian for help in identifying appropriate books, articles, and other resources.
  • See the Interviewing and Recording Guidelines for additional tips.


Students Aaron Palmer and Eddy Albrecht interview veteran Jim Cunningham from Sioux Valley VFW Post 1750, Iowa. Photo Courtesy of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Segment 1: For the Record:

Make an introductory announcement at the start of each audio or video recording. Record on tape the date and place of the interview; the name of the person being interviewed; his or her birth date and current address; and the names of the people attending the interview, including the interviewer and his or her institutional affiliation or relationship to the interviewee and the name of the camera or recording operator if different than the interviewer. Ask the veteran what war(s) and branch of service he or she served in, what was his or her rank, and where he or she served.

Segment 2: Jogging Memory:

Were you drafted or did you enlist?
Where were you living at the time?
Why did you join?
Why did you pick the service branch you joined?
Do you recall your first days in service?
What did it feel like?
Tell me about your boot camp/training experience(s).
Do you remember your instructors?
How did you get through it?

Segment 3: Experiences:

Which war(s) did you serve in (WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf)?
Where exactly did you go?
Do you remember arriving and what it was like?
What was your job/assignment?
Did you see combat?
Were there many casualties in your unit?
Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences.
Were you a prisoner of war?
Tell me about your experiences in captivity and when freed.
Were you awarded any medals or citations?
How did you get them?
Higher ranks may be asked about battle planning. Those who sustained injuries may be asked about the circumstances.

Segment 4: Life:

Ask questions about life in the service and/or at the front or under fire.

How did you stay in touch with your family?
What was the food like?
Did you have plenty of supplies?
Did you feel pressure or stress?
Was there something special you did for "good luck"?
How did people entertain themselves?
Were there entertainers?
What did you do when on leave?
Where did you travel while in the service?
Do you recall any particularly humorous or unusual event?
What were some of the pranks that you or others would pull?
Do you have photographs?
Who are the people in the photographs?
What did you think of officers or fellow soldiers?
Did you keep a personal diary?

Segment 5: After Service:

Appropriateness of questions will vary if the veteran had a military career.

Do you recall the day your service ended?
Where were you?
What did you do in the days and weeks afterward?
Did you work or go back to school?
Was your education supported by the G.I. Bill?
Did you make any close friendships while in the service?
Did you continue any of those relationships?
For how long?
Did you join a veterans organization?

Segment 6: Later Years and Closing:

What did you go on to do as a career after the war?
Did your military experience influence your thinking about war or about the military in general?
If in a veterans organization, what kinds of activities does your post or association have?
Do you attend reunions?
How did your service and experiences affect your life?
Is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?

Thank the veteran for sharing his or her recollections.

Please be sure that the veteran, interviewer, and photographer (if any) sign the appropriate release forms found in the Project Kit.

Acknowledgments

The questions above were developed by the Veterans History Project team working in consultation with the American Folklife Center and the Oral History Association. Special acknowledgment is extended to Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian, United States Senate, and author of Doing Oral History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995).

As a Vietnam vet, I find it easier to share war stories with fellow vets than with non-vets.

But there's a lot more to military life than the worst of the worst. And since only a small fraction of veterans ever see actual combat, there are lots of fascinating stories to be told about other aspects of military life.

In fact, most veterans would be happy to share their military stories about coming of age, buddies for life, humorous situations, exotic cultures, travels, and more.

All they need (and want) is for someone to ask. Problem is, most people don't know how.

So, I've complied a list of 10 questions that can 'start the conversation' with any veteran. Trust me, you won't be asking, "Did you kill anyone?"

These are questions that elicit stories you'll want to hear and veterans will be happy to share. Once the stories begin to flow, your veteran will be grateful you took the time, and might want to share many more stories. 

To my fellow veterans, you are always in my heart and mind. I encourage you to share your stories because they can enrich your family in so many ways. For me, I find this to be very cathartic, and I believe it will be the same for you. 

For veteran families and others, please follow these steps:

  1. Ask your veteran if he or she wouldn't mind having a brief chat about their military service
  2. Find a quiet space with a 'low risk' of any interruptions (or just make a call)
  3. Share your questions with the veteran before asking (no potential surprises)
  4. Ask the 10 questions below in the order in which they appear. (one builds upon the next)
  5. Ask follow up questions (just as you would when sharing stories with anyone else) 

This dialog can be enormously beneficial, even therapeutic, for your veteran. You may become that special person your veteran trusts enough to 'continue the conversation' in more depth. What a gift!
 

TEN QUESTIONS TO ASK A VETERAN

  1. What motivated you to join the military?
  2. Tell me a little about your time in bootcamp.
  3. What was (is) your primary job after training (MOS)?
  4. Where did you serve the majority of time in service?
  5. What rank are you most proud to have earned, and why?
  6. Which medals or citations are you most honored to have received, and why?
  7. Tell me about some of the special people you met.
  8. What was the best and worst 'military' food you were served, and why?
  9. Tell me a funny story you experienced that could only happen in the military.
  10. How did (does) your military experience affect your life today?
  • If your veteran feels up to it, I highly recommend recording the stories (preferably in audio). This will not only capture the veteran's stories in his or her unique voice, personality and dialect, but you can always transcribe the audio into the written word. Although video is a powerful medium, without experienced preparation, many people become too self-conscious of their appearance or other distractions. 
  • Ask your veteran if there are any photos he or she would like to share. Many veterans don't know how to tell their stories. But reminiscing with photos can often elicit a flow of conversation that can easily be recorded.
  • Give the recordings to the vet, or help make them available online or in a physical form of some kind. Either way, you'll be giving your veteran a chance to see the affect these stories have on people today, while leaving a legacy for future generations tomorrow. 
  • For recording in audio, I recommend trying our free mobile app because it takes a picture of the veteran, or one of the pictures, then records the story to marry the two together online. 
  • For writing the story, I highly encourage you to log in or create your free account in this website. Not only can you begin building your own story portfolio, but you can help your veteran establish his or hers too. This way, the stories can be kept private or discriminately shared. 
  • Continue the conversation by choosing from 200+ questions and more with the Legacy Stories Handbook. The moment a word is entered into the handbook, it becomes one of the most important family documents.

If you want to help more veterans tell their story, perhaps you could share this article with others. For that, I would be forever grateful.

Semper Fi

Tom Cormier, Co-founder
Legacy Stories

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