Area veterans share war stories with Auburn High students, share health concerns with Auburn University nursing students

Published: May 02, 2016
Updated: May 03, 2016
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This year marked the first time Auburn University nursing students joined Auburn High School students in their quest to record oral histories of area veterans.

Blake Busbin, an AP history teacher at Auburn High, has been arranging student-led interviews for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project since 2014. More than 90 veterans from World War II to current engagements have participated so far, and can be found at http://auburnveteransproject.weebly.com.

Before interviews with an additional 68 Vietnam veterans were held this spring, students under the direction of Libba McMillan, an associate professor in Auburn's School of Nursing, recorded videos to educate Busbin's students about veterans' health. Nursing students then attended interview days to talk to the veterans about any combat-related or post-war health concerns.

For the students – Auburn High and Auburn University alike – the experience provided them with a greater appreciation for our nation's veterans and a better understanding of history.

"I would describe it as basically watching history right in front of you," explained nursing student Hannah Stanfield. "It's something you wouldn't get in a textbook or a movie. It was real life."

The Auburn University junior said she won't soon forget the experience, especially talking with a former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, who talked honestly about his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, since serving in Vietnam. For the past 50 years, she said he has been using painting to cope with the lingering anguish.

Considering there is no cure for PTSD and the veteran has found a way to live with it, Stanfield could have ended the conversation. But instead, she asked him for advice on how she can help others like him.

"He said that if you ever come across a veteran that seems really distressed and won't open up, put a piece of paper and a pen in front of them," she said. "Ask them to write down or draw what they're feeling. You'll be surprised at the result.

"I thought that was good advice because it would give them a way to express themselves without really talking about it. They could get the feelings out that they've held inside for so long."

As a nurse, Stanfield said his advice would help her to visualize and empathize with the veteran's experiences, which would ultimately help her provide treatment.

"Compassion is one of our biggest qualities and I think they could tell that from talking to us," she said. "I think it made them more open to share deeper stories."

Fellow junior nursing student Rebecca Williams met with the same man, and said, "It was interesting for me to see the contrast between the pride he has from serving and the pain he was carrying. He was very proud of what he did, but you could tell the pain he still carried from his experiences in Vietnam."

Williams said she expected the veterans to be forthcoming about their general health, but not about their military service. Since the veterans had volunteered to help the high school students, it made sense to Williams that they cooperated with the younger students, but the university students were strangers and not a part of the class project.

The fact that they were nurses, however, made a difference.

"We are responsible for providing care for people and that's what they were looking for," Williams admitted. "I think that automatically bonded them to us."

Olivia Stewart-Costa, another junior in nursing at Auburn, was not surprised at their frankness. "I think they were willing to share their stories because they were told not to when they came home from Vietnam. This was their chance to tell what really happened. I learned more in an hour with them than I ever did in five or six years of history classes."