NICEVILLE — History will come alive Saturday afternoon at Northwest Florida State College as 13 local veterans and Niceville High School students telling their stories, hold a book signing and community reception.
The event is part of the Veterans Heritage Project, a nonprofit effort that connects middle school, high school and college students with veterans of World War II and subsequent conflicts to honor the veterans and allow students to learn history from people who lived it.
The signing and reception are scheduled for 2 p.m. at NWF State's Student Life Center, Building 400 at 100 E. College Blvd. Proceeds from sales of the book, titled "Since You Asked: Veterans Share Their Stories," will fund the work of the Veterans Heritage Project.
Among the local veterans interviewed were retired Air Force Col. Howard J. Hill, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war after he was shot down over Vietnam in 1967, and retired Army Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo, who fought in World War II's Battle of the Bulge. Lombardo will be the keynote speaker.
The Veterans Heritage Project was established in Arizona, and the Niceville High School chapter is the first outside that state. Local development of the Veterans Heritage Project has been spearheaded by Gretchen Erickson, whose father was interviewed in 2012 for the annually produced book.
"I thought, 'This has to be here,' " Erickson said in a recent interview. Today, she is the Veterans Heritage Project program advocate for Florida.
At Niceville High School, formation of the Veterans Heritage Project began last year when Advanced Placement English students read "The Things They Carried," an award-winning 1990 novel by Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien. Based on O'Brien's experiences, the book follows a platoon of infantry soldiers through the jungle.
Students subsequently interviewed eight local Vietnam veterans, and after that interviewed five other veterans from World War II and the Korean War, for "Since You Asked." Those 13 stories are included with stories from other Veterans Heritage Project schools for the edition of "Since You Asked," Erickson said. The local project will need to find more veterans to interview to publish its own book, according to Erickson.
"I just hope I can find enough students to keep it going," she said.
Also hoping the Veterans History Project will remain viable at Niceville High is 18-year-old Audrey Colletta, a graduating senior who conducted one of the interviews in "Since You Asked."
As the project got under way, Colletta took steps to make it a permanent part of school life, finding sponsors and filling out the required paperwork. She said she's confident the groundwork laid by her and her fellow students, along with the ongoing support of teachers like Carmen Marshall-Claude and Erickson's guidance, will keep the Veterans Heritage Project alive.
Colletta interviewed retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Comer, former vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, about his participation in the Mayaguez incident, the last official battle of the Vietnam War. The May 1975 incident began in the ocean off Cambodia when the U.S. container ship S.S. Mayaguez was seized by communist Khmer Rouge naval forces.
Colletta called the interview "a very amazing experience," although she found the writing process somewhat daunting. She understanding the military terms she heard was particularly difficult.
"It's almost like a separate language," said Colletta, who added that she got some help from her father, also a veteran, to decipher the terms.
Colletta was struck that Comer was involved in the Mayaguez incident when he was only a little older than she is today, and that got her thinking about serving others.
"It kind of made me think more about wanting to give back," she said.
That was a a typical experience for students who interviewed the veterans, according to Erickson.
"It was life-changing for all of these students," she said.