Nancy Hopp’s father was on his deathbed when he told her about the wounds he suffered in World War II. He had rarely discussed his combat experiences, but as pancreatic cancer consumed his 83-year-old body, he shared the entire story. How he and his buddies were trapped in a barn in Metz, France. How some of them were picked off by snipers as they tried to escape. How he was shot in the lower back, his body riddled with shrapnel.
“It was the ﬁrst time I had heard the story from start to ﬁnish,” said Hopp, a court reporter in St. Louis. “He talked about how he was in a constant state of fear during the war, and how he would hold his riﬂe with a rosary wrapped around his ﬁnger. I think he wouldn’t allow himself to die until he had shared his story.”
At the National Court Reporters Association’s (NCRA) 2016 Convention & Expo in Chicago this past August, Hopp helped other veterans tell their own stories. She and a team of fellow court reporters interviewed eight local Purple Heart recipients for the Library of Congress’ (LOC) Veterans History Project, which records the personal stories of American vets. The involvement of court reporters in the project dates back to 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation creating it. One of the bill’s sponsors was Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, whose wife, Tawni, was a court reporter. Tawni Kind suggested that members of her profession — who record a minimum of 225 words per minute — were uniquely qualiﬁed to transcribe histories. Three years later, the NCRA–LOC partnership was born. The association and its charitable wing, the National Court Reporters Foundation (NCRF), provide volunteer court reporters to conduct and transcribe personal inter-views with veterans, or to transcribe pre-recorded histories from the LOC’s collections. NCRA works year-round with the Veterans History Project, and members are enthusiastic: Since 2003, NCRA volunteers have transcribed more than 4,000 interviews.
At NCRA’s 2016 Convention, Hopp — who chairs the NCRF Board of Trustees — interviewed two Vietnam veterans: Kenny Laforge and John Domina. In 1970, the men, both 18 at the time, were wounded when their base was attacked. Laforge was hit in the arms and legs and suffered a brain injury. Domina endured a cracked skull and two perforated eardrums; he still has 23 pieces of shrapnel in his body. They both have post-traumatic stress disorder. The two men wanted to be interviewed together.
Interviewers receive a set of questions from the Veterans History Project — most sessions last about an hour — but the process can vary depending on the subjects. “Many veterans have never shared their story,” said April Weiner, NCRF’s foundation manager, “so some need additional nudging, while others may only need to be asked a few questions.”
Hopp asked Laforge and Domina questions while another court reporter recorded their answers. As an inter-viewer, Hopp’s goal is to “paint a chronological picture,” so she started by asking the men about their upbringing. Eventually she transitioned to their brutal combat experiences and the challenges of readjusting to civilian life. “No one wanted to hear their story when they came home,” Hopp said. “They were turned away for membership in several veterans organizations. World War II vets generally viewed Vietnam vets as drug addicts — they didn’t want them in their organization. So these poor guys were left to ﬁnd ways to cope with what they’d experienced.”
The Veterans History Project is NCRF’s most popular program. More than 100 court reporters and court-reporting students participate annually — one volunteer alone has transcribed nearly 50 veterans’ histories since 2012 — and the NCRF submits about 300 transcribed histories to the LOC each year.
“The written record of these interviews not only provides a searchable database that is used for research purposes by students, archivists, and Congress,” said Michael S. Nelson, CAE, CEO and executive director of NCRA/NCRF, and a Vietnam vet, “but they help us get a sense of the struggles of war and the sacriﬁces our protectors had made to guard our freedoms.” For volunteers, one of the biggest beneﬁts is the veterans’ gratitude, as Hopp discovered after interviewing Laforge and Domina. “I think it was cathartic for them,” she said. “They’d never had a vehicle to tell their story, and keeping everything bottled up for so long was an incredible burden. Ken hugged me and said, ‘Thank you, thank you — thank you so much for doing this.’ So it was obviously important to them.”
It was equally important to Hopp. “It gave me a better understanding of what my father went through,” she said. “Throughout his life, the emotional injuries affected him more than the physical injuries. Hearing these stories conﬁrmed my views about how war affected my dad.”