One Vietnam veteran that Half Hollow Hills reference librarian Edna Susman interviewed had been so rattled by his experience there that he went decades without looking at the thousands of photos he took as a combat photographer.
Another of the subjects Susman recorded recalled carrying the lifeless body of a fellow squad leader who had insisted on shielding a fellow soldier during a battle in Afghanistan and perished after being shot in the temple.
“It was a traumatic experience, and it was tough to discuss,” said the interviewee, former Army Staff Sgt. Adam Arabian, 38, of Lake Grove. “Discussing it brings you back to that day, and it was a difficult day.”
Slowly and methodically, Susman is collecting the oral histories of men and woman who went off to military service, and who came home alternately proud of their experiences and shaken by them.
Susman began the Half Hollow Hills Library’s Veterans Testimonial Project four years ago, after attending a conference of librarians in Las Vegas and learning of a compilation of veterans histories that the Library of Congress has been collecting since 2000.
Thus far, she has collected the stories of 89 men and women, recording the interviews on a tripod-mounted video camera. The library shares the videos with the public unedited, via the library’s website at hhhlibrary.org/veterans.
The Library of Congress has included her interviews in DVD form in its Veterans History Project compilation of oral histories.
The work of oral historians like Susman — whose local ranks have grown to include area historical societies, high school civics classes, and freelance military buffs, among others — allows veterans to share their personal biographies, preserving them for a public that mostly reveres the image of military personnel even as it knows little of their actual experiences.
The Middle Country Library system is also collecting veterans’ oral histories. One was told by Richard Rosenblatt, 97, of Jericho, who arrived at Pearl Harbor aboard the Navy cruiser Salt Lake City just hours after the attack and saw the tropical lagoon in flames.
“Sailors in motor launches with boat hooks were picking sailors out of the fuel oil who were gone already,” Rosenblatt recalled in a recorded interview available on the library’s website. “They had them piled up in the boat like cordwood. I could never forget that.”
Other programs encourage veterans to tell their stories in written form, including the Veterans Legacy Program offered by Suffolk County Community College.
“It is important for us to know our history, and veterans are a big part of that,” said Susman, whose career began at the Library of Congress in 1978. “Libraries preserve history, and oral histories are an important way of doing that.”
Even among the soldiers who did share their histories, some experiences went unsaid.
Contacted this week, interviewee Donna Zephrine, 45, of Bay Shore acknowledged that she had not mentioned that unwanted romantic attention was a frequent source of intimidation during her two Iraq War deployments, in 2003 and 2005. Men outnumbered women 10-1 in her 200-member unit, and a superior made frequent solicitous references to her body.
“It was very difficult to make an appointment with mental health, because the deployment had just begun,” Zephrine added.
Ronald J. Rorie, the combat photographer, who was 19 when he went to Vietnam in 1969, said he was so troubled by his service amid the booby traps and blind waterways of the Mekong Delta that he kept hidden for decades the thousands of photographic negatives he took during his combat tour.
He said Susman’s project helped him to come to terms with the troubling memories.
“I was in tears when I discussed my combat experience with her,” said Rorie, of Dix Hills, who shared his story with Susman during a 2016 interview at the library. “It was the homecoming I had never felt before.”
Arabian, the veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said he decided to participate in Susman’s project as a tribute to both the living and the dead — the two young sons he and his wife are raising at their Lake Grove home, and the two buddies that perished together during a 2005 battle in Afghanistan.
In tones that were alternatively animated and calm, Arabian told of a battle that claimed the lives of his two friends, Army Sgt. Michael J. Esposito Jr., 22, of Brentwood, and Staff Sgt. Anthony S. Lagman, 26, of Yonkers.
“That was the first one [firefight] in which I’d seen in front of my own eyes somebody killed,” Arabian said.
He said he is normally reluctant to speak of war but decided he wanted to contribute the oral history to help his children understand him and his two slain friends, who are buried near each other at Calverton National Cemetery.
“So they could understand not just me,” Arabian said referring to his sons, “but people like Esposito and Lagman, and the sacrifices they made.”