March 12, 2009 -- Maj. Matt Hardman lost three men in an improvised explosive device attack in Iraq in 2004. The memories of that IED continue to haunt him.
"The day after my guys were killed, one of my squad leaders comes up to me with a box, and it's a box of fingers and ears and just pieces of my soldiers," he said.
West Point is now recording war stories like these as part of an ambitious project to preserve the voices and experiences of thousands of American soldiers. It will launch the project this fall.
"We're really reaching back all the way to WW II," said Todd Brewster, director of the Center for Oral History at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. "Our approach is to take something like the war in Iraq and tell it in its totality through the voices of the soldiers. ... We need that raw experience in order to understand it more completely."
For generations to come, soldiers' personal accounts from combat, many of which might have never been heard, will be recorded as a part of history.
"We went into the landing zone with 12 helicopters, and every one of them was hit," one soldier said.
"I received permission from my brigade commander to kill this individual," another recalled.
"You don't worry about yourself," another soldier said. "You worry about your people, and they will worry about you."
Cadets will be able to search a Web site and watch these soldiers' video testimonies, learning about war from those who have been there.
"It is one thing in the classroom for me to put up a map and have cadets do a reading and see the Xs and the arrows," said Matt Moten, acting head of the department of history at West Point. "But then helping cadets to understand there was a human being who was under fire, who was afraid, and who was having to make split-second decisions."
Moten said that hearing the experiences brings some immediacy to the classroom and gives cadets a human sense of what soldiers are actually feeling on the ground, something that can't be conveyed in a textbook.
"This is a way to give them a better feel of what combat's going to be like," Moten said. "Looking at somebody who's got skin and muscle and blood and bones who can tell you where they were and what they were doing and how they felt at the time."
Cadets Learn War Lessons From Past
The lessons soldiers learn on the frontlines of combat are so far removed from civilian life that the experience can be jarring.
"Most of us don't have a framework for how surreal combat is," Maj. Hardman said. "It is so far outside the realm of most of our daily lives, and kind of the things that you're going to see and witness and do, that I think that the cadets need to be mentally and emotionally prepared for that."
After graduating, West Point students will be making decisions on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan -- decisions they will live with for the rest of their lives.
"They have to understand that the commanders, that generals and corporals are all making decisions, and they're making them under stress that is hardly imaginable in the classroom," Moten, the department head, said.
Hardman remembers one young lieutenant under his command who didn't come home alive.
"I remember Luke right before we loaded aircraft at Fort Bragg [N.C.] and him, right before he handed his son to his wife," he said. "His son is never going to be held by his dad ever again. And that's emotional. That's hard.
"Twenty years from now, his son, Bradley, can look at this and find people talking about his father and what kind of man he was. I think that's important."
Besides serving as a teaching tool, the project is intended to preserve oral accounts of soldiers' stories. The archives will also be available to the general public, which makes the project not only a history lesson but a kind of public engagement.
"American society is not as connected to its military as it was a couple of generations ago, and this gives us an opportunity to help re-establish that connection," Moten said. "We're not monolithic, we have different views, we're part of American values."
For more information on the West Point Center for Oral History project, or to make a donation to its cause, visit the Web site.