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Flushing Town Hall project helps veterans tell their stories

By Tammy Scileppi

Courage and integrity, honor and commitment are the stuff of which heroes are made.

This Veterans Day, Queens residents have an opportunity to say thank you to those who have fought for freedom and to all those wounded warriors and their families.

“Our borough is home to thousands of veterans who have served our country in uniform, with bravery and distinction, including those who have recently returned from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. “Their sacrifices should be remembered not just on Veterans Day, but every day, and I applaud any effort that will help ensure that their courage and honor will never be forgotten.”

On Tuesday, residents and visitors can celebrate Veterans Day by sharing and learning how to preserve stories of vets.

During a unique workshop, which will be held at Flushing Town Hall, attendees will find out how to conduct interviews, collect personal history and transfer those stories to the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center: Veterans History Project.

John Rowan, 69, of Middle Village, served bravely in Vietnam. He came home in 1967 and then worked for the city. He said he has a cousin who recently returned from Iraq and knows a few neighbors who have served there as well.

As national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Rowan delivers congressional testimony at annual House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Conference Committee meetings. VVA, which has a chapter at the VFW Hall on 149th Street in Whitestone, has been responsible for passing important legislation.

Rowan said he and his organization have been doing a lot of work with post-traumatic stress disorder, making sure returning service members get the help and treatment they need. He noted that VVA also addresses various issues that are similar to those experienced by soldiers who fought in Vietnam, like toxin and parasite exposure, which had affected some of those vets up to 40 years later and could potentially affect recent service members, as well.

From four years of service in the Marines to helping others during 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, United War Veterans Council Founding President Vince McGowan, 70, is definitely a three-time hero.

His organization produces the city’s Veterans Day Parade, recently dubbed “America’s Parade,” which is the largest veterans event in the country.

The recently retired, but still vibrant, vet said he was aware of the Veterans History Project at Flushing Town Hall and he believes that over the years Americans have lost the art of storytelling, but thinks there is a trend to bring it back.

“This is a way for people to share major and catastrophic events in their lives. Certainly, being a combat veteran is a catastrophic event in your life,” he said. “It’s also healthy to talk about these things. Too many veterans have their stories bottled up, about what they should have or shouldn’t have done.”

He recalled when he was a young vet returning home from Vietnam in 1968, and things were much different then.

“During the Vietnam War nobody wanted to hear about vets. We weren’t welcomed home. We were chased away,” he said. “You look at all the municipal organizations who stopped honoring vets, even with parades.”

Like Rowan and the VVA, McCowan and his UWVC work with service members who are struggling with various issues, like PTSD. He said the Flushing Town Hall workshop is an opportunity for people to talk about their experiences with their loved ones, and a chance for the service members to get it off their chests, and put their story out there for future generations.

“It’s part of the fabric of what we call the veterans community – the most diverse group. We have five genders (including no gender at all). We’re the first to bring women in.”

McGowan added, “If you experience the loss of a wounded friend, or if you’re wounded yourself, you become forever changed. It may not show outwardly, but there’s no question these events have a major impact on your life, and telling your story is a great way to relieve the pressure.”

It’s fitting that the workshop is being held in a building constructed to welcome soldiers returning from the Civil War.

“On a rainy day in December 1861, Union troops marched down what is now Northern Boulevard. Due to inclement weather, the community quickly bid goodbye to their troops and they steamed away to war,” said Gabrielle Hamilton, director of Education and Public Programs at Flushing Town Hall.

But Flushing’s community leaders realized they failed the young men heading off to war with this less-than-appropriate farewell. So they knew they would not make the same mistake when the war was over, Hamilton said.

“They wanted to welcome home the veterans of the Civil War with dignity, so they immediately made plans to build Flushing Town Hall,” Hamilton said. “It seems fitting that we once again welcome veterans to Flushing Town Hall and collect their personal stories and preserve their contributions with respect.”

Veteran Todd Ford, who is a readjustment counselor at the Queens Vet Center in Woodhaven, said the workshop may help some veterans who are reluctant to talk about their personal experiences open up and share what are “valuable individual moments of our nation’s history.”

“A veteran’s unique experience, whether in peacetime or war, is their own. From a veteran’s own words, we can all learn valuable lessons, feel the tremendous highs, or depths of their sorrow,” he said. “Once they are gone, these stories are also gone. Without these stories, we as a nation or as individuals might forget the great joys, the sacrifices made, or the terrible cost paid by the men and women of the Armed Service. I just might stop by the workshop myself.”

IF YOU GO

Veterans History Collecting Workshop

When: Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 1 pm

Where: Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Blvd., Flushing

Cost: Free, but call to reserve a seat.

Contact: (718) 463-7700

Website: www.flush‌ingto‌wnhal‌l.org

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