By Andrew Wiest, Ph.D.
In 2005 I viscerally knew that the old National Guard was no more. My closest friend, the godfather to my eldest son, was leading a company of the 150th Combat Engineer Battalion of the Mississippi National Guard on combat operations in Iraq. The unit, locally raised, had just suffered serious losses before Hurricane Katrina swept through the area, laying many of their homes waste. Disaster relief, for their own families, was needed. But the men and women who normally would have been tasked with that relief were a world away on a dusty battlefront.
As a historian I knew that this was an important moment in history, as the National Guard shifted from being weekend warriors to a combat force relied upon for multiple deployments. As a local product I knew that the stories of my neighbors, the men and women who served in the National Guard, deserved to be told. So, as a veteran of many a book project, I set out to gather and tell the story of the 150th and to use that story as a lens through which to view the wider saga of the transformation of the National Guard.
Next stop? The archives, of course. I knew exactly what I needed. Operations orders, after-action reports, and historical unit summaries – the basic hammer, screwdriver, and saw in the toolkit of the military historian. And to humanize those dry documents I knew that I would also need oral histories – the personal stories that make warfare come alive on the printed page in all of its horror and glory. To my researching dismay, though, I quickly discovered that there was no true central repository for all things National Guard. For the Army – head to the National Archives or to the Center of Military History. For the National Guard? Well, it turned out that the National Guard story was nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. The National Guard story was in armories, attics, local archives, and individual memories spread all over the state. And, if you wanted to take the story further, this wasn’t the situation just in Mississippi, but in 49 other states as well.
What had started as a book project had mushroomed into something much larger. My colleagues and I at the Dale Center, in tandem with the Mississippi National Guard, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, The Mississippi Humanities Council and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at Southern Miss, decided to launch the program, “War Stories – National Guard.” Our goal is to gather the diffused story of the National Guard together into one place for the first time. Our goal is to conduct oral interviews with a new generation of guardsmen and women to collect their stories before it is too late – a task all the more important in an age where most personal documents of war were digital and, thus, maddeningly lost in the ether and to time.
“War Stories – National Guard” is just getting started. The first few major documents have been located, and the bedrock oral interviews are ongoing. It is our hope that through this process we will be able to capture the story of the National Guard during this important moment of transformation. With the documents and oral testimonies in place we hope to provide a research home for the legacy of the National Guard. A place where researchers worldwide will be able to access the tactical, cultural, and social stories imbedded within the greater whole.
And, in the end, I hope that I can also finally get down to writing my new book.