Romley: How storytelling can empower youth, heal veterans

For public servants, few things can inspire the simultaneous dread and gratitude that comes with receiving an award.

We do all that we do out of a calling to serve others, so naturally receiving personal honors feels at odds with our mission.

Rick Romley

Yet, for the community you serve to express their gratitude, is humbling. This push-and-pull is exactly what I felt when I learned I would be receiving the “Storyteller Award” from one of the Valley organizations that is dearest to me, Veterans Heritage Project, at their Saluting Stories of Service Celebration Dinner on March 9.

The Storyteller Award, they say, is given to those whose stories impart inner strength, and who are committed to furthering veteran interests in Arizona.

While I hope my work has done those things, I will readily admit that there are Arizona veterans who are more deserving. When I’ve met them, shook their hands, and heard their stories, I’ve felt their inner strength.

VHP offers that same experience to students; the program provides middle school, high school, and college students with first-hand civic education by connecting them with veterans. Through VHP’s oral history publishing program, students capture veterans’ stories and images, which are permanently preserved in the Library of Congress and through the student publication Since You Asked.

Since 2004, students have preserved over 2,000 stories.

My story shares the same pages as these veterans, and I’m sure they would all agree that this experience offers more than mere academic credits. The lessons my fellow veterans and I learned were taught in the harshest of human classrooms.

We fought to ensure our children would never have to face that ugliness. But that very ugliness also taught us the meaning of courage, grit, and self-sacrifice.

Through VHP, veterans can impart the lessons we learned in those difficult times to new generations. History can fade quickly, but VHP gives our youth a deeper understanding of what it takes to protect this democracy of ours. It is an unmissable civics lesson for our future leaders.

And as beneficial as the experience can be for students, veterans benefit from the opportunity just as much.

Returning from service is not as simple as stepping off a plane; it takes years to truly come back.

My experiences in combat were extremely personal to me. Talking about them was the last thing I wanted to do. But something happens when you begin to tell your story, when you push through the pain and vulnerability of exposing something you’ve kept hidden –– you set down the baggage you’ve carried for so long, and you begin to unpack the suitcases to find the lessons that were buried beneath the piles of dirty fatigues.

And as you share those with the young person sitting across from you, you begin to see all the positives those experiences taught you, rather than only the negatives. It is a healing experience like no other.

VHP’s contribution to our veteran community cannot be understated. But don’t take my word for it –– visit veteransheritage.org to learn more about this inspiring program.

Editor’s Note: Rick Romley is a Scottsdale resident.

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