Syracuse University Magazine

Soldier Stories


Retired Sgt. Maj. Brad Trudell and his wife, Allison, raise Scottish Highland cattle in Mexico, New York.

The grim reality of war resonates in a conversation between Vietnam veteran John Allis and Marine Sgt. Andrew Young G'10, a combat photographer who served multiple tours in Iraq. The two answered the call of duty four decades apart, but they voice an understanding of each other's experience: 

"There were times when I've never been more frightened in my life..." Allis says. "That kind of fear I never want to feel again." 

"I know exactly what you're talking about. I should be dead at least twice, if not three times, by now," Young says.

Their exchange was one of several one-on-one conversations between veterans, family members, and friends captured by the Veterans Listening Project, which presents the veterans' stories in their own words through voice recordings and video portraits. Co-executive producers Brad Horn G'10, a Newhouse graduate student in multimedia photography and design, and Newhouse professor Bruce Strong developed the project in conjunction with the StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that allows people nationwide to record and preserve the stories of family and friends. They believe the experience can be cathartic for veterans and necessary for civilians. "We ask them to risk everything to go to war for us," Strong says. "This is an opportunity for veterans to tell their stories and for people to start to understand the cost for our veterans in order for them to be what we've asked them to be."

The conversations are sometimes uncomfortable, though always revealing. In one recording, retired Sgt. Maj. Bradley E. Trudell, a 28-year Marine veteran, tells his wife, Allison, what he would share with younger combat troops:

"It's not just about pulling triggers, but it's about your attitude and it's about how you treat people, doing unselfish things and the right thing for the right reason."

The idea to record veterans' stories came about in spring 2009 while Horn and Strong were working on News21, a national initiative to train student journalists in new media that the Newhouse School is involved in. Horn was familiar with the work of StoryCorps and had also read an article about Albany therapist Edward Tick, who discussed how communities should open up gathering spaces to hear veterans' stories. Horn connected with StoryCorps organizers, who felt the idea to tell veterans' stories complemented its National Day of Listening, held the day after Thanksgiving, to encourage one-on-one conversations. "We were inspired by StoryCorps, and they were thankful for what we were doing to promote them," Horn says.

Students, including web designer and photojournalism major A.J. Chavar '10, and Professor Ken Harper helped put the pieces together, and staff members at local NPR stations WAER and WRVO assisted with the audio recordings. The Newhouse School provided seed funding, and two other News21 participants—Arizona State University and the University of Southern California—recorded conversations and attached still portraits. 

The entire project was capped off with an hour-long program on WAER, "Veterans, We're Listening," which focused on issues involving returning veterans and the Veterans Listening Project. "It was really exciting to see that people care about doing creative journalism," Horn says. "They care about veterans' experiences. They care about what their neighbors are doing."

Young, a student in the Newhouse School's Military Photojournalism program, appreciated the opportunity to connect with another veteran and share his experience. "I hope people will take away an awareness of what veterans have to say about their service," he says. —Kathleen Haley

Video image courtesy of Bruce Strong