Everyone has a story to tell — but more often than not, those of veterans are lost to time, preserved as memories by their closest confidants, or sometimes not at all.
That became abundantly clear to Nick Kraus and Matt Hindra in 2014, as they traveled the film festival circuit with their documentary “Welcome to Soldier Ride,” which followed the birth of the epic cycling event that fosters connection between veterans and simultaneously raises money for Wounded Warrior Project, a not-for-profit organization that Mr. Kraus co-founded.
As the stories of Iraq War veterans Heath Calhoun and Ryan Kelly unfolded on the screen, they suddenly opened a door for more veterans to come forward, inspired by the film to share their experiences with none other than the filmmakers themselves.
And it got them thinking.
“When we were doing the festival circuit with the film and showing it around the country, veterans just started walking up to us and they started telling us their stories,” Mr. Hindra said, “and we wanted a way in which we could do that, and honor them.”
Enter USA Warrior Stories, a not-for-profit that has allowed the longtime friends and East End residents to interview, record and produce more than 100 stories told by veterans, some of whom are no longer alive.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience for us to even be able to sit there with these folks that have gone through and done so much for the country, and to be able to be part of that,” Mr. Kraus said. “We can see it means a lot to them to share these things. It can get really emotional. You walk out of these interviews and it’s like, ‘Wow, this person just shared their whole life.’ That’s pretty cool.”
Just before COVID-19 made its presence known in the Tri-State area, Mr. Kraus and Mr. Hindra were in the midst of rolling out phase two of the project, which included clinics at veterans centers — including the VFW, American Legion posts, and VA hospitals — to teach volunteers, and some of the veterans themselves, how to record their stories.
That has since ground to a halt, now replaced by online seminars teaching veterans the process — as well as by the filmmakers conducting their own interviews via video chat.
“Sometimes it’s harder than you would imagine,” Mr. Hindra said. “Not every 90-plus-year-old World War II veteran is comfortable talking to a computer. But you won’t believe it: We did have an interview with a 99-year-old gentleman just recently over Zoom and his whole family sat in with us, so they could hear his story firsthand. A lot of them had not heard it, so that was really amazing. The whole family helped get photographs together and all kinds of documentation to send to us. So that was just incredible.”
That particular veteran, Irving Brown, was born in 1925 and drafted into the U.S. Army when he was 18. After completing basic training, he was assigned to the Army Medical Corps and, in early 1945, deployed to Italy to serve with the 671st Medical Regiment, part of the U.S. 5th Army — just months after his brother, Leo, was killed in action on November 12, 1944.
He had been sitting at a table below deck on an Army Air Corps ship playing cards when a Japanese kamikaze pilot struck them. Half the men at the table were killed, while the other half survived.
“Through Irving’s story, we got to learn about his brother who died in the South Pacific during World War II, and his family was kind enough to give us photos of the brother and a short bio that we could add to Irving’s story,” Mr. Hindra said. “That way, we could honor his brother, who is no longer with us.”
With most World War II veterans approaching 100 years old, recording their stories is more important now than ever, the filmmakers agreed. With the pandemic barring them from visiting the nonagenarians in person, USA Warrior Stories will soon roll out a phone app that can interview veterans of all ages using an automated list of about 20 prompts, Mr. Kraus said.
“If you can’t sleep at night, you can just sit there and start telling your story,” Mr. Kraus said. “We find that sharing your story has healing power — getting things off your chest and hearing other people’s stories so that you can understand that you’re not alone with what you’re going through.”
The website is also accepting submissions, as was the case with former East Hampton resident Lee A. Hayes, who served as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and trained as a bombardier for the 477th Bomber Group.
Before he died in 2013, Mr. Hayes sat down with Max Scott for an interview, which the filmmaker later submitted to USA Warrior Stories — a six-minute look into the divided United States Army during World War II.
“That time in history, when an African American couldn’t openly serve beside a white American soldier, the fact that we had a segregated military, the Tuskegee Airmen were really the height of that for African Americans,” Mr. Hindra said. “To have someone like that, who lived in our community, tell his story and to be able to share that with other people is just amazing to me.”
While the percentage of living World War II veterans — of the 18.2 million veterans alive in the United States today — is extremely low, some of their family members are doing what they can to tell their stories, including Ross Rowlinson. Through collected photos, written accounts and verbal history, he has pieced together the story of his grandfather, Lieutenant Commander Harry Rowlinson, a man he never even met, but certainly knows now.
“We hope that people who might know a veteran, wherever they live — we can do this all remotely now, very easily — would consider participating,” Mr. Kraus said. “We think it can be a very good, positive thing for them, and it’s a positive thing for other veterans to be able to see and hear their stories, and for civilians, as well. You don’t have to be a veteran to appreciate and enjoy a lot of these stories that these folks have to tell.”
For more information, visit usawarriorstories.org.