By Ellen McHugh
Paul Ortiz won’t turn on the TV or the radio on Veteran’s or Memorial Day. He doesn’t want to hear it.
“You’ll see it on Veteran’s day. Some politician will get up and speak about the meaning of military service,” Ortiz said. “Then you’ll look at his or her record, and they haven’t even been in the military. They have no idea what they’re talking about.”
A veteran who served in Central America in the Reagan era and a member of the Gainesville chapter of Veterans for Peace, Ortiz also directs the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF.
As part of his work with the program, Ortiz is gathering a collection of stories from Florida’s veterans, ranging from WWII to the present. His purpose is to shed light on the reality of war.
“With every veterans project that we’ve embarked on, we’ve emphasized the costs of war and the ways in which people do not normally think about those costs,” Oritz said. “These costs continue to resonate beyond the time that the war takes place.”
The project is part of a research collaboration with the US Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, created in Oct. 2000.
The accounts Ortiz gathers will be available via the archives of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF and presented amongst hundreds of others on the Veterans History Project website.
The national collection includes video interviews, photo memoirs and documents from service men and women like Frank Buckles, 109, the last known surviving American veteran of WWI.
“It’s best for anyone who’s been in the military service if he’s had some disagreeable experiences [...] to talk about it and get it out of his system and then forget it,” Buckles says in an audio interview.
However, it is unlikely that Vietnam veteran and local activist Scott Camil will forget.
“We would come into a village, and all the people would have fearful looks in their eyes,” Camil said. “They would bow their heads. They would put their hands in front of their faces in that praying position. Sometimes we would kill them and sometimes we wouldn’t.”
Camil threw away his war medals in 1971 during Dewey Canon 3, a protest by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Washington D.C.
“I would never want to see that look on the faces of my friends, my loved ones or my neighbors.”
Camil testified during the Winter Solider Investigation of ‘71, exposing US atrocities in Vietnam. At the 1971 UF homecoming parade, he was one of the “Gainesville Eight” who marched, rifles in hand, carrying coffins draped with American flags and waving signs calling for no more war. Camil now serves as president of the Gainesville chapter of Veterans for Peace.
As Ortiz continues to interview local veterans, he hopes that the project will serve as a microphone for those not as outspoken as Camil.
Ortiz is interviewing WWII veterans who kept quiet for 60 or 65 years because they wanted to protect their loved ones from the horrors of war.
“When they returned home in 1945 no one wanted to talk to them,” Ortiz said. “The media wanted to focus on the positive stories.”
Ortiz criticizes Hollywood for doing the same.
“It tends to glorify and to sanitize the experience that people have, both as soldiers and civilians, in wartime,” Ortiz said. “This is something that as historians we can work to correct.”