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Monday, November 9, 2015

Volunteer Helps Give Voice to Veterans

by Patricia Billinger
Ken Yaphe is a 20-year veteran of the Air Force. He is soft-spoken and calm. And like the dozens of other veterans he has connected with to help collect and share their stories, Ken is humble about his service.

“Most veterans themselves are very modest about their service,” Ken said. “Most of the veterans who come to us to share their stories come to us because of other people pushing the veterans to be interviewed.”

Ken is the Colorado and Wyoming volunteer lead for the Red Cross Veterans History Project, in which Red Cross volunteers interview U.S. veterans of all ages to be included in the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.

Ken Yaphe sets up a camera to interview veteran and Red Cross
employee Wayne Lacey.
“It’s important on different levels. For our country, it’s important because it’s the voices of those who served, not just the pundits and politicians. It’s the ones who had to do the fighting, and their first-hand accounts,” Ken said.

Collecting the stories also provides a lasting memento for the veterans’ families – many who haven’t heard the details of their loved ones’ wartime experiences. “I get a lot of satisfaction from the fact that the families really appreciate getting their loved ones’ stories recorded so that they will have them forever. That’s where the most reward comes from,” Ken reflected.

Ken has participated in more than 30 interviews with local veterans. He has also trained other volunteers in Grand Junction, Walsenburg and northern Colorado to deliver the program in their local communities.

His work is the natural continuation of a lifetime of service. After serving in the Air Force from 1995-2005, Ken retired from the military and worked in private contracting for several years. He said he found himself looking for a better fit for his time and searching for opportunities to serve again – this time as a volunteer. Ken found that opportunity at the Red Cross, where he signed up to respond to everyday disasters after talking to a friend who was helped by the Red Cross after a home fire.

Ken has been volunteering on a Red Cross Disaster Action Team for about a year and a half. They’re the volunteers who get called out an all hours of day and night to respond to home fires and other disasters, and show up to provide immediate comfort and relief to victims of disaster. Wanting to take on more regular duties in addition to the emergency response, he answered the call for a Veterans History Project lead about a year ago.

His own military service has helped Ken both appreciate the experiences of those he interviews, and be more effective at drawing out the stories of the veterans. “For many of the veterans, it’s cathartic. Some share things with us that they’ve never even told their own families after 30, 50, 70 years,” he said.

Some veterans are more reticent, but Ken believes in the power and importance of giving voice to their stories. The project aims to collect stories of all veterans, from WWII to the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. “It’s still too soon for many veterans. They came out of their war with an experience completely different than WWII veterans. I explain that their story needs to be heard, too – the good and the bad. That’s what we value in America: the truth. And they have a story that needs to be told, too.”

Ken’s wartime assignment as an electronic warfare officer meant he didn’t experience combat in the traditional sense; nevertheless, his volunteer work with generations of veterans from all branches of the military has strengthened the bond he shares with fellow men and women who served. “There’s a personal connection. It makes me feel a little bit more connected as a thread of veterans who have served this country.”

The Red Cross continues to seek veterans who are willing to share their stories and experiences for future generations. The program is also accepting volunteers to complete interviews. For more information or to set up an interview, please e-mail ken.yaphe@redcross.org.

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