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StoryCorps Brings Military Voices Initiative To WUWF, Pensacola

Derek Pruitt
The Post Star

In collaboration with WUWF Public Media, StoryCorps is returning to Pensacola next week, April 8-19, to record the stories of Northwest Florida’s military community.

The Military Voices Initiative originally launched in 2012. The project provides a platform for veterans, service members and their families to share their experiences.

StoryCorps has a list of suggested interview questions to get the conversations going. Topics cover everything, from details about the early stages of military service to deployment, friends made — and lost, and transitioning back to civilian life.

We checked out some of the StoryCorps MVI archives.

In one interview, 9-year-old Talana and her 12-year-old brother Willie interview their mother Felicia Banks.

“So, how did it make you feel to leave us for your deployment,” Talana asks.

“Well, I remember that morning when I left; it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” recalls Banks. “And, I just prayed that we be together again.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Williams recounts the day he and his squad were sent on a rescue mission in Barwanah, Iraq. On the way, their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.

“I just hear the loudest explosion and I see that it’s my squad’s vehicle that got hit,” said Williams. “The bomb flipped it upside and ripped it completely in half and everything inside of it was just parts.”

In another interview excerpt, we hear about the relationship between Paul Braun and his Iraqi interpreter, identified only as Philip.

“We started to trust you and since you fought with us and you bled with us and you lived with us, you became us; and my Iraqi interpreter became my American brother,” Braun declared. “And, my American soldier became my Iraqi brother,” responded Philip.

Hazel Diaz has worked with veterans in education, healthcare and outreach. Herself a Marine Corps veteran, she now serves as manager of StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative.

“I really love that StoryCorps really gives them an opportunity to tell their stories and that there’s not an agenda for the story line or plot, or anything else that comes with it,” said Diaz.

When their distinctive silver Airstream Mobile Recording Studio arrives for interviews beginning Monday, April 8, it will mark StoryCorps’ third visit to Pensacola, since its founding by David Issay with a single recording booth in New York City in 2003.

“We have a soft spot for Pensacola,” Diaz said in anticipation of StoryCorps’ return. “We really enjoyed partnering with your station and we really felt a connection with the community there and we’re hoping to do the same when we come back.”

Over the years, StoryCorps has carried out its mission to record and preserve the stories of Americans, with special initiatives to include a focus on the lives of African Americans and members of the LGBT community. More recently, the Justice Project launched to record the stories of those directly impacted by mass incarceration.

In 2010, StoryCorps came to Pensacola to record the stories of those affected by the BP-Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

For the upcoming Pensacola swing, the Military Voices Initiative takes center stage.

According to Diaz, this project allows veterans and service members to actively participate in conversations that are often about them, but don’t include them.

“With a StoryCorps interview, they can come in and talk about whatever experience they want to share and it will be archived for future generations who want to know what the military was like at this time or some of the challenges that came with service,” she said.

Pensacola was a logical choice for a stop on the Military Voices tour.

The WUWF listening area includes several military installations, including Naval Air Station Pensacola, Whiting Field, Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base, and has one of the largest populations of veterans (per capita) in the country.

While acknowledging the urgency of preserving the stories of the World War II generation, Diaz says this effort is inclusive of the entire, ever-changing veteran community through Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We want to make sure we capture diversified stories of our veterans,” declared Diaz. “Our veteran community’s growing more female, it’s becoming more diverse year after year, and we want to make sure we’re capturing and representing all veterans that want to share their stories for future generations.”

There should be no shortage of service-connected individuals to share their stories, but this particular group is not always open to sharing possibly sensitive information and may have concerns about the archiving of their interviews in the American FolkLife Center at the Library of Congress.

“There’s a lot of hesitation sometimes with the military demographic about saying something they shouldn’t or kind of not being able to take back,” said Diaz. “You know, there’s a high level of vigilance in conversation especially when you’re being recorded.”

To help ease those fears, Diaz points out that the StoryCorps interview in the mobile studio is an intimate experience, in a small booth in the back, and what to do with the recording is a personal choice.

“At the end of that interview, you decide what to do with it after everything’s been said and done. And, it’s always an option for you to walk away with the tape and have nothing done with it,” Diaz explained.

“StoryCorps won’t keep it. We won’t send it to the Library of Congress. The person that is in the interview is control of what happens to that tape.”

To ensure that interested individuals can ask questions about the interview process and get the information they need, there will be a Listening Event on Thursday, April 11, 7 p.m., at First United Methodist Church, at the corner of Palafox and Wright streets, in downtown Pensacola, where the mobile studio will be parked.

This is a catered event. It is open to the public and free to attend, but reservations are requested at wuwf.org.

“That is an opportunity for people to come in and learn a little bit about StoryCorps, listen to some of the stories that we’ve previously recorded and really have a conversation about what to expect when they come into the booth or if they come in for their interviews,” Diaz said.

The Listening Event also will include information about a new App developed by Story Corps to allow people, whether they are military or not, to conduct a StoryCorps interview with anyone they wish, anytime, from anywhere.

The Pensacola stop on the StoryCorps Military Voices tour is April 8-19. To find out more about StoryCorps and to make a reservation for interviews and the Listening Event, click on the Military Voices tile on our website, wuwf.org.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.