Gilbert resident Craig Houk

Gilbert resident Craig Houk, seen here during a tour in Afghanistan, found the project empowering on many levels.

It’s been an unprecedented year for the Arizona National Guard. From fighting forest fires to providing pandemic relief and protecting sites from civil unrest, thousands of citizen soldiers have answered the call.

Those soldiers – and the ones who came before – have a chance to tell their stories through a unique program this fall.

The Veterans Heritage Project is an Arizona nonprofit that invites veterans to share their stories with students. The veterans may discuss all aspects of their service – why they joined, what they experienced and how those experiences shaped them.

The students listen, conduct interviews and write the stories that are published in an annual collection. The book is available for purchase and is in the Library of Congress. Participating veterans receive a free copy.

The process is empowering on many levels, said Gilbert resident Craig Houk, a past president of the Project and current board member.

“Students are learning first-hand history from individuals who served their county in amazing ways,” Houk said. “Students tell us that they also learn other lessons … civic responsibility, taking care of others … it effects what they want to do with their lives.”

The program started in 1998. A Cactus Shadow High School student asked history teacher Barbara Hatch if the scenes depicted in the film “Saving Private Ryan” were real. Hatch directed students to the source – she invited veterans of the conflict into her classroom to discuss their experiences.

From there, the idea grew into an after-school oral history publishing club and eventually a nonprofit organization. Today, 30 schools in three states have programs and more than 2,300 veterans have had a chance to share their stories. Schools in Phoenix, Chandler, Scottsdale and Glendale have chapters. 

This year, the spotlight is on National Guard veterans, whose mission continues to evolve as the nation faces new challenges. 

“We thought it was a great time to focus on Guard members,” said Houk, who spent 30 years in the Army both active and reserve. He saw duty in Cuba, Korea and Afghanistan and was one of the interview subjects for the Veterans Heritage Project in 2008.  

As a participant, he was invited to a reception when the book was unveiled. The experience spurred him to get more involved. 

“You get about 30-40 veterans together in the same room …. World War II, Korea, Vietnam … the experience was overwhelming for me,” Houk said. “The veterans become emotional; the students become emotional. There’s this wonderful experiential thing going on.”

National Guard veterans who want to participate in this year’s program can submit an interview request that is available on the Project website -- veteransheritage.org

 

Local resident in service

Gilbert resident Darius Swan is serving aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton. Swan, an electronics technician 3rd Class, recently assembled shoring during a general quarters drill. 

The Princeton is part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and Pacific through the Western Indian Ocean.