Every day we lose people who witnessed historic events. How sad that their stories are forever lost because no one thought to ask the right questions to veterans and record their answers.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Questions to Ask a Veteran for a Legacy Video or Memory Book
- Questions to Ask a Grandparent Who is a Veteran
- Questions to Ask Veterans for a Veteran’s Day Project
If you know a veteran of World War II or the Vietnam War, consider asking him for an interview. You could use the answers to create a memory book to share with their family and friends. You may also consider recording their responses on video to preserve their mannerisms as well.
You must also realize that some veterans may not want to discuss their memories of war. The years they served may have been the most difficult of their lives. War is ugly, and the veteran may want to protect you from hearing the stories. If this is the case, it is best to say, “thank you for your service,” and not push the matter too hard.
Questions to Ask a Veteran for a Legacy Video or Memory Book
Taking the time to listen to a person’s story is a kind act. Recording that story for posterity’s sake would make a great DIY Veteran’s Day gift. Your aging loved one will rest easy knowing that their story has been recorded for the ages.
Here are some questions to ask someone who served our country. You may want to make the interview feel less like a series of questions and more like a discussion. This would make the interviewee more likely to open up about their experiences.
1. Where did you grow up? Describe your childhood.
If you have time, you may ask the veteran to go back to the beginning of their life to begin your discussion. This type of conversation may give you vital background information relevant to the rest of the story. These questions would also be easy to answer and would make the veteran more comfortable with the idea of sharing.
2. What motivated you to join the military?
The veteran may not appreciate being asked if they chose to join the military or if they were drafted. If the question is phrased in this way, your interviewee can fill in those details as they see fit.
3. Did other members of your family serve in the military?
Some people join the military because they come from a long line of service members. Your interviewee may be proud to provide the service records for past generations who served.
4. Why did you choose your particular branch?
It’s sometimes interesting to learn what motivates people in their decisions. You may find out that the choice was somewhat random, which is interesting to think about since that single choice may have altered the outcome of their lives.
5. Describe basic training.
Sit back and listen as your interviewee describes the experience. You may ask additional questions such as, “Had you traveled much before joining the military?” or “How did it feel being away from home for the first time?” You might be interested in finding out the most difficult, physically demanding task they were asked to complete as a part of their training. You may also ask if they had any demanding instructors during basic training.
Read our guide on ideas for honoring veterans all year round for more.
Questions to Ask a Grandparent Who is a Veteran
There are many fill-in-the-blank grandparent memory books on the market, but you may or may not have a grandparent (or parent) who wants to take the time to complete this project. Many of these books ask very general questions which could lead to rather dull answers.
Instead, consider interviewing your grandparent, especially if they are a veteran. Start with some of the easy questions listed in the previous section. As your grandparent becomes more comfortable, consider asking some more specific questions like the ones that follow.
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6. Where were you first deployed?
Since this is a closed-ended question, you may need to follow up with additional questions if your grandparent doesn’t fill in the blanks on their own. You may ask what their first impression was when arriving in the country. Ask if they could interact with any of the civilians or if they brought back any souvenirs.
7. What was your assigned job?
Learn about your grandparent’s duties in the military. You may be surprised to find out that your grandparent is skilled in a completely different profession from how they later earned their living as a civilian. Ask how they felt about the assignment.
8. What special people did you meet?
Some veterans form lifelong friendships with other service members. Ask about those relationships and whether or not the relationships continued once they left the military. Ask if your grandparent ever attended any military reunions.
9. What was the most frightening experience you had while serving your country?
You might need to remind your grandparent that you are not there to judge him or make him feel uncomfortable. Instead, tell him you would like to allow him to share stories they may have been thinking about for decades.
Give your loved one time to compose their thoughts when sharing difficult details. They may be more likely to share if you put your camera and pen down and listen as they tell their stories.
10. Where were you when…
The more background knowledge you have regarding the war in question would be beneficial when asking these types of questions. These questions may lead to other ones about whether your loved one received information about how the war was going in general. You may also ask where they were when they found out that the war had ended.
Questions to Ask Veterans for a Veteran’s Day Project
You may have been assigned to interview a service member for a Veteran’s Day project. Take a look at these questions to ask older people to prepare for the project. Here are some other service-related questions to ask as well.
11. What did you miss the most while you were stationed overseas?
Once you find out what they missed the most, you could ask a series of follow-up questions. You may ask about writing letters home and receiving mail. You could also ask about what the food was like and what they did during downtime. You might also ask about any entertainment options that were available to soldiers.
If your interviewee’s spouse is available, you might ask about what it was like, having your loved one gone during the war.
12. Did you lose anyone you were close to while serving?
Allow the service member to talk about those lost in combat. The veteran may feel more relaxed sharing others’ service stories instead of talking about their achievements on the battlefield.
13. Did you experience any lighthearted moments while serving?
Hopefully, the veteran will describe some of the lighter moments that they had while serving. You may want to ask this question when you feel that the interviewee has become reticent to share more details about their time in the service. Sometimes people are more likely to share happy memories.
14. What was the transition like when you returned home?
A good interviewer doesn’t put words in the interviewee’s mouth. Instead of asking how difficult it was to return home, ask him to describe the transition. You may also consider asking a follow-up question regarding how the veteran’s time in the service affected the rest of their life. This may be a difficult topic for the veteran to discuss.
15. What do you wish that civilians would understand about military service?
Don’t be surprised if the person you are interviewing starts discussing the current political landscape while talking about the past. Many veterans are well informed about current events, and their experiences may cause them to be more opinionated than others.
Other Interview Tips
The best interviews take a lot of time to complete. This is especially true if you are talking with an older adult. Here are some interview tips to help you get the most out of the experience.
Let the veteran know that you are coming and that you would like to ask him questions about their life and military service. This will give the interviewee a chance to recall some of the details during earlier times of their life.
Schedule your talk in a comfortable, private spot with few distractions. Make it feel more like a discussion between friends rather than an interview. If you need to take notes, do it discreetly. Position the camera so that the interviewee forgets that it is there.
You may find that the interviewee doesn’t have enough stamina for long conversations. Arrange for a series of shorter talks, which would allow you to have time to complete historical research and you may have a better experience.