ALEXANDRIA, Va. – In a small single-story colonial style building, near Alexandria’s old town, a group of twenty or so veterans photograph and document, shards of pottery, buttons and badges from World War II and bullets from the Civil War.
The Army Corps of Engineers Veteran’s Curation Program, provide recently separated military veterans with employment and job training through rehabilitation and preservation of archeological collections while also providing the vets with interview skills training and resume writing assistance.
The program is the result of a thought born during the middle of Operation Iraqi Freedom when St. Louis District’s Dr. Sonny Trimble, an archeologist with USACE, was performing forensic archeology on mass graves.
“We we’re gathering evidence from mass graves in Iraq during the middle of the war and presenting the findings in court for the senior regime members all the way up to Chemical Ali and Sadam [Hussein], said Trimble. “ During the process we had guys, mostly from the Army and Marine Corps, providing 24 hour watch over us as we were outside of the base all over Iraq, and I wanted to find a way to help them since they really protected us during the war.”
Upon his return to the United States, Trimble began work on creating the curation project., with the help of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding the program launched five years ago in three locations, Augusta, Georgia; St. Louis, Missouri and Alexandria, Virginia.
Inside the Alexandria location, work desks line the sidewalls with teams of two to four individuals examining artifacts under lights, weighing and documenting them prior to packaging them up for storage or display, depending on the final location for the items.
For Army veteran Greg Boster, the work and experience allows him to more easily transition from the rigors of military life to the civilian culture.
“During the transition process I heard about this program, and this has been a good opportunity to make connections, meet people and move on towards the future.
The transition is slow and measured to meet the individual needs of the service members participating in the program the numbers are kept low for a reason.
“We really believe so many of these men and women, who have spent considerable amount of time in the military, really need a longer transition period, so we only train 10 at a time,” Trimble said.
According to Trimble, another reason the participation is kept low and the stress level to a minimum, is to meet the medical needs of the men and women in the program.
“I realized that so many of these men and women have to go to appointments and many of them have some level of PTSD of some kind; you can’t push someone like that -- they have to take their own path and their own speed -- that’s what we do here, we go at their pace,” Trimble said. “I need them to be whole people first, for themselves and their families.”
The proof is in the numbers. According to VCP officials, many of the other transition programs have a successful placement rate in the high 30 to mid 40 percent range. Meanwhile, VCP is maintaining a rate more than double to the other programs.
“We have had an 89 percent success rate for graduates to go to school or be employed,” said Jasmine Heckman, laboratory manager.
One of the projects the veterans are tackling comes from the grounds of Fort Norfolk. Eight boxes of artifacts are being combed over by the participants.
“The collection itself is a really good representation of historic pottery we also have a couple of fun pieces, we have had some metal pieces and some prehistoric lythic pieces in there as well,” Heckman said. “It is a really nice representation that these techs will have to learn to process.”
Boster is one of the techs assigned to the curation of the Fort Norfolk Collection and is discovering there has been human presence around the old fort long before the first fortifications were ever placed.
“I am going over some ceramics and bone, the bone is usually from animals that are made into tools or decorations,” Boster said.
The collection was unearthed as part of the construction process for the Waterfield Building, the current Norfolk District headquarters building. Records from the collection indicate the archeological investigation and collection of artifacts occurred in 1977 to 1979.
The items were turned over the Virginia Department of Historic Resources who maintains custody to this day.
When the veterans are done with the documentation of the items, they will pack the boxes back up, using proper archival techniques, and send them back to VDHR.
“The items will be available for researchers to look at but we are really depending on the veterans to comb through it and tell us what all is included in it so we can determine what might be available for display,” said Dee DeRoche, chief curator for VDHR.
Trimble believes the veterans ability to work on collections like the one from Fort Norfolk is a win-win for USACE and the veterans. It allows the Corps of Engineers to process items that have been backlogged in storage for many years, while giving veterans tangible skills they can use throughout their lives.
“It’s been the best project I have worked on in the corps; nothing is better in your heart than helping other people,” Trimble said. “The biggest thing we do is make them feel good about themselves, if they feel good about themselves they can do anything.”