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OHA Spotlight: Jason Higgins and the Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project

Welcome back to our blog series!

Our OHA blogger this week is Jason Higgins, who says that he was “drawn to oral history by my appreciation for story-telling and the shared experiences that form what we call the human condition. Oral history speaks to my natural curiosity in the stories and memories of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.” With a background in both English and History, he states that “oral history allows me to transcend intellectual and disciplinary boundaries. Oral history provides innovative methods to explore the past in search of ways to make meaningful change today.” Jason indeed seeks to make meaningful change through his Incarcerated Veterans History Project, which he is sharing with us today. We encourage you to reach out to Jason via email or any of the social media he has provided.

Jason’s Background: I earned a bachelor’s in English and history from University of Arkansas at Monticello in 2013. Since 2012, I have documented the experiences of over forty veterans of war from WWII to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an intern for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program in 2014, I interviewed over thirty veterans as part of the Spotlighting Oklahoma Oral History Project. I earned a Master of Arts in English from Oklahoma State University and wrote my master’s thesis on Vietnam veteran autobiographies, trauma, and suicide.

Currently, I study history under Christian Appy and work with Samuel Redman in the UMass Oral History Lab. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I focus on the social history of modern war and collective trauma.

Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project

I am launching an Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project, working with the support of the UMass Oral History Lab, Samuel Redman, and Christian Appy. My project seeks to document the experiences of incarcerated veterans from the Vietnam War to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have recently begun the process of reaching out to communities to locate and contact combat veterans imprisoned after their service. I hope this blog will help me extend an invitation to veterans who might be willing to share their experiences in the military and the criminal justice system. Please contact me if you have ideas that may help me pursue these goals.

This project investigates the relationship between war-related trauma and the difficulties of post-war readjustment. To connect mass incarceration to the Vietnam War, my research examines the ways in which trauma, disability, institutional racism, and the disparities in the criminal justice system contributed to the imprisonment rates of hundreds of thousands of veterans. Compounded by inaccessibility to disability benefits and resources, counseling, and legal representation, many of the most vulnerable Vietnam veterans experienced a crisis of post-war readjustment in a decade of rising unemployment rates and little opportunity.

Historians have customarily overlooked the post-war lives of veterans, and none have adequately sought to preserve the experiences of imprisoned veterans. The Department of Justice reported 73,000 veterans in prison in 1978, an alarming 23.8% of total prison population. Following the Vietnam War, veterans were more likely to be imprisoned than non-veterans. Many traumatized veterans reintegrated from Vietnam without access to mental health services or community support. The DSM-III officially recognized PTSD in 1980, but it took decades for trauma to be acknowledged in the court system.

Since 1978, the total number of American citizens in prison increased from 300,000 to 1.5 million. Thanks to grassroots organizations and activist veterans, the growth rate of incarcerated veteran populations did not rise as exponentially as the rest of the country, but the total number still doubled.

My oral history project seeks to humanize incarcerated veterans—to bring them out of the shadows of the criminal justice system—and preserve their testimonies for future generations. I plan to archive these oral histories within the W.E.B. DuBois Library and the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, ensuring their experiences are included in the history of the United States.

I am asking for the help of this community of oral historians to share the goals of my project and bring awareness to the systemic crises facing military service men and women.

Please contact me at jasonhiggins2016@gmail.com.

Follow me on Twitter.

Share my Facebook page: Incarcerated Veterans History Project

I follow the Principles and Best Practices of Oral History as established by the Oral History Association.

If you are interested in writing a blog for the OHA, please email oha@gsu.edu for more details.

 

 

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