News & Events

Mars Hill University Students Preserve Veterans' Memories

Sergeant Bernard Briggs, a native of Madison County and commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), served in Army Military Intelligence in Berlin, Germany, during the late 1960s. Recently, he sat down with Mars Hill students Ian Kirkpatrick and Jennifer Cardona to describe his experiences.

Briggs09 Cardona, Briggs and Kirkpatrick

Briggs told the students about living in Berlin during a time when people from East Germany were routinely shot by East German police for trying to escape to the West. During that period, in the midst of the Cold War, Briggs experienced the resentment of the Germany people, for whom the devastation of World War II was a fresh memory. And when he returned to the United States, he was met by anger of Americans who blamed returning service members for the war in Vietnam.

For university students who were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, and long after the conflict in Vietnam, such stories are the stuff of history books. Many of them may not know real, live people who have experienced the major events of the 21st century. But that will be changing due to the work of students in Patrick Cash's Introduction to Public History class at Mars Hill University, who intend to preserve the memories of as many veterans as possible in the coming semester.

"This class gives us a different perspective on the past," Cardona said. "Before this, we've only been able to learn things from textbooks. Now, we're able to learn from people who actually experienced these things."

Kirkpatrick said the class was a different experience than the average history class and allowed students a more "hands on" experience with people in the community of Madison County. Both he and Cardona say that the class is their favorite class this semester.

According to Cash, veterans groups have identified a large population of veterans in Madison County. "Obviously, we can't interview all of them this semester, but we have permission from 27 veterans who are willing to share their stories with us," said Cash.

All interviews conducted at MHU will be donated to the Southern Appalachian Archives, as well as the Genealogy Room of the Madison County Public Library in Marshall, NC. Some interviews with members of Mars Hill Baptist Church will be donated to the church library.
In addition, Cash said, many of the interviews will qualify to be donated to the Library of Congress's Veterans' History Program (VHP), which collects interviews with war veterans from World War I, World War II and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars.

Cash said the project will allow students – most of whom are history majors or minors – to provide a vital service for the history researchers of the future, but the project also has important educational goals for the students.

"This is important academically because good interview techniques are important skills, not just for history majors, but for students across the humanities," Cash said.

The project is also about generating respect and recognition for local veterans, and connecting students to their adopted community. "This is just one way to connect students to the community as well as members of living history in the community," Cash said.

The interviews at MHU are a joint effort of the history department, the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) at MHU, and a number of community partners. The course has been designated as a Community Engaged course. This is a new designation that signifies to students that the course has a significant amount of service to the community with one of the CCE’s Deep Partners.

According to Caroline Twiggs, CCE Community Partnerships Coordinator, the veterans to be interview were located as the result of partnerships with the Madison County VFW, Mars Hill Baptist Church, and Madison County Veterans Services Coordinator Matt McClellan.

"Hopefully, a project like this will not only help the students, but it will encourage local veterans to get in contact with us, as well as veterans' services that are available in the county," Twiggs said. "Our goal is that eventually we will reach more vets and extend this opportunity to interview to more classes, so that this becomes a continuously sustainable project at Mars Hill."

Perhaps one of the best aspects of the project, Twiggs said, is that students will learn that, ultimately, history is about people. "These students will gain a new appreciation for the fact that the individual stories of people are just as important as what's in the history books."