Capturing the stories of local veterans who served the nation has always been the goal behind the oral history program at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.

However, when the center was forced to close last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was shut down too.

That gave center staff time to think how the program could be adapted to ensure the health and safety of interviewers and veterans as they tell their stories.

Under the new program, veterans now have three options to contribute their stories to the Bong Center’s oral history archive.

In addition to in-person interviews, which have resumed with new safety protocols, veterans can share their stories through the online video-conferencing platform Zoom, or family or friends can borrow equipment from the Bong Center to conduct the interview at home.

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“I’m doing Zoom meetings every day, and I thought ‘why can’t we do that with oral histories as well?'” said Briana Fiandt, curator of the Bong Center. “And then the backpack just gives families the opportunity, if they don’t want to bring a stranger into their family member's home, they can do it themselves.”

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The oral history backpack kit includes an audio recorder, camera, suggested questions and an interview training kit. Kits are available to check out for two weeks, and once the interview is complete, participants return the kit and recorded oral history to the Bong Center. The oral history will be cataloged and added to the permanent archives.

“One of my main goals in the last couple of years was to get as many World War II veterans as I can before they’re gone,” Fiandt said. “It made me think about how many people we might have missed during the time we were shut down. And even once we reopened, people might not feel safe coming in here. They don’t want to leave their house, so I was thinking of alternative ways we could capture these stories before they’re gone.”

In-person interviews have resumed with new protocols to ensure social distancing and a plastic shield to separate the interviewer from the veteran. Additional sanitizing will take place before and after each interview.

For information about setting up an interview in person or on Zoom, or reserving a backpack kit, contact Bong center 715-392-7151 or email Fiandt at fiandt@bongcenter.org.

In addition to expanding options for its oral history program, the Bong Center created new mini-exhibits for people to explore, featuring artifacts that wouldn’t normally fit in with the other displays, said Dustin Heckman, director of the Bong Center.

“Edith Schultz: A European Homefront Experience” tells the refugee story of a young German woman living in Poland. The exhibit features artifacts from her time in a Russian POW camp. The other exhibit, “Beauty from the Battlefield,” features a variety of art made by men and women living in battle zones or POW camps.

“It’s some really cool pieces we get to share with people and showcase how these soldiers were dealing with all these difficult things in their life while they’re also in battle,” Heckman said.