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Grout Museum's new traveling exhibit features interviews with Iowans

BY STEPHANIE ABEL-HOHENZY Cedar Falls Times — Too many veteran stories are left untold.

The Grout Museum is on a mission to change this fact. And they are succeeding.

In nearly a decade, they have interviewed over 1,200 Iowa veterans and videotaped their stories for posterity.

The hundreds of clips can be viewed as part of exhibits inside the The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum.

But now the museum staff is taking the recordings on the road.

On Thursday, two travelling kiosks, funded by a Black Hawk County Gaming Association grant, left Waterloo en route for Independence and Fredericksburg. Their goal is to share veterans' stories with Iowans.

The project, Voices of Iowa, will allow residents of each town to visit their library and view clips from interviews with local veterans. A 42-inch flat screen TV with interactive touch keys will give viewers options to select different segments on video.

"We have the largest collection of veterans stories in the country collected by one organization," says Bob Neymeyer, Grout Museum Veteran Project coordinator. "It's like a book on a shelf but on video."

The largest portion of the video exhibit, Hometown Heroes, is dedicated to local veterans' accounts of their service and sacrifice. It highlights 10 to 15 people's experiences from their service in wars, ranging from WWII to present conflicts. It showcases not only infantry soldiers, but cooks, radio operators, medics, truck drivers, Red Cross workers and more.

For every soldier on the front lines, it takes seven or eight other service members to help keep operations flowing during wartime, said Jane Meyer, who joined Bob on the project as an interview assistant in 2008.

"Everybody has a story who served and every story is different," she said. "I've talked to people who have lived through horrible experiences, and I'm in awe how they came home and lived a normal life."

One era, adds Jane, that many might not classify as wartime, but that people have shared their experiences about, is the Cold War.

"I grew up in the 50s and 60s and I remember air raid drills," she says. "It was a scary time too."

But the hardest stories to stomach, she adds, were the accounts from Vietnam.

"There was very little civilian support for that war and because of that I think they [soldiers] got a real raw deal," she says. "I had one say to me, 'The worst part of the war was coming home and getting spit on.' I just feel honored and humbled that these folks let me hear their stories."

Since 2002, Bob's office has doubled as a studio to record the interviews. An American flag hangs on the wall next to a comfortable chair in which veterans sat and laughed as they told stories about their service buddies and cried as they shared how they lost them. Some interviews lasted 30 minutes and others several hours.

Bob says back then, with the hype of movies like Saving Private Ryan, "it became clear that veterans are starting to talk about their experiences and that they wanted to tell their stories."

At the time, the Grout Museum board was made up of a lot of WWII veterans who agreed that their museum should reach out to veterans and soon the project took off. Between veterans stopping by the museum to share and Bob and Jane travelling around Iowa to collect stories, it has developed into a large and meaningful project.

"We didn't think we were going to get this many stories," says Bob. "We've covered about two-thirds of the counties in the state."

The ultimate goal is to reach every county and keep collecting stories and then cut the videos into smaller segments for the travelling kiosk program.

Among the veterans' stories on the video will also be sections titled, On the Homefront, I Was There and Out on the Farm, each highlighting experiences of Iowans who lived through different wartimes. So far, dates have been confirmed for the Jesup Library and Denver Library from Nov. 22 through Dec. 6. And although dates have not yet been confirmed for Cedar Falls, there are over a dozen veterans in Cedar Falls who have recorded their stories for the project.

Any veterans who would like to have their memories recorded for history should please call Bob Neymeyer at 234-6357.

Also, veteran's interviews are available for viewing in the James, Bob and Richard McKinstry Library at the museum. Families and large groups can also use its theatre for viewing. To make an appointment to watch an interview, call Catreva Manning, archivist, at 234-6357.

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