Since it is Veteran’s Day tomorrow, I thought I would share this story today involving war veterans and pottery. It’s the story of a project designed to help war veterans transition into civilian employment while tackling the monumental job of cataloging and preserving a backlog of artifacts uncovered during the construction of reservoirs from the 1940s through the 1980s. We’ve included images of some of the sherds that have been processed through the program — which is always fascinating — along with images of the veterans at work. I think maybe the next step in this project ought to be getting the vets into a pottery class! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections (MCX-CMAC) opened three Veterans Curation Project (VCP) laboratories funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The project’s mission is to provide US military veterans with job skills through on the job training in the rehabilitation and preservation of archaeological collections. Veterans rehouse artifacts and associated records to ensure for the long-term viability and storage of collections in curation centers and museums across the United States. The primary goals of the VCP are to assist veterans in gaining new skills and growing comfortable in a non-military work environment, rehabilitate artifact collections and their associated records, and collaborate with other organizations to provide guidance and future employment opportunities for the veterans. The facilities are staffed by Brockington and Associates, Inc., and located in areas that are home to large populations of wounded and returning veterans: Augusta, Georgia, St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C.
The project offers a supportive environment where veterans can gain work skills and build confidence. Each VCP facility employs approximately 10 full-time veteran positions for a six-month term. Veterans work as archaeological laboratory technicians and perform tasks including artifact processing, digital photography, re-housing and scanning of associated records, data entry, and technical report writing. The VCP provides a new focus for veterans who are recently separated from the US military, which may include securing employment or even returning to college for additional studies. Speaking about his experience at the St. Louis facility, Air Force Veteran Cody Gregory stated, “When you’re in the military you have a sense of purpose. After getting out of the Air Force, I lost that somewhat. The VCP is giving me the opportunity to belong to something special again.”
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Most of the archaeological collections processed at the VCP were excavated by the US Army Corps of Engineers from the 1940s through the 1980s during the construction of reservoirs and water control programs. The artifacts include numerous historic and prehistoric ceramics that are typically housed in acidic, brown paper bags and boxes. Veterans are generally trained on artifacts rehabilitation first. The veterans create inventories of their assigned artifact boxes and then begin re-housing the artifacts into a more stable environment, which includes archival bags and curation-grade boxes. Artifacts are identified and then assigned a unique identification number used for tracking purposes. Veterans, serving as lab technicians, photograph distinctive or diagnostic artifacts using museum-quality digital photography equipment.
Once the technicians are comfortable with artifact processing and digital photography, which takes anywhere from two weeks to two months, they transition to archives rehabilitation. This stage of the project involves working with the records produced in relation to the individual archaeological collections. Acid-free folders, notebooks, and boxes are utilized to re-house paper documents, oversized items, photographic materials, and electronic and audiovisual objects. Lab technicians clean and mend associated records, organize the documents, re-house items into appropriate storage containers, assign unique identification numbers for tracking purposes, and scan important or fragile items.
For both artifact and archives processing, technicians are responsible for entering data related to collections into spreadsheets, uploading digital photographs and scanned document files into an electronic database, and participating in technical report writing. After archaeological collections are re-housed, databases completed, and reports written, the collections and associated information are transferred to a final curation facility. The electronic materials, including spreadsheets, scanned document files, digital photographs of artifacts, and reports are compiled. These files will eventually be utilized to create an on-line searchable database meant to facilitate future research and generate educational resources.
The records and digital imaging skills are some of the most valuable skills that the veterans learn while at the VCP, because they are readily transferable to other employment opportunities; however, relearning civilian social skills are just as important for the veterans. These skills are harder to define, but they include learning to live and communicate in a different social environment. For veterans who have been unemployed for long periods, simply coming to work on a regular basis can be a significant transition. The VCP recognizes and accommodates for physical disabilities and allows for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury to work at their own pace. The VCP lab managers undergo their own training, which involves becoming educated on veterans issues and learning to work with veterans who face physical and psychological challenges.
Building a Support System and Results
As previously stated, although the VCP’s main technical focus is to rehabilitate archaeological collections, the most important focus is to train and assist veterans. The project does this by working closely with the veterans, but just as importantly with other agencies to build a larger support system for the men and women who work in the VCP labs. Recommendations for veteran employees are provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, nonprofit Veteran’s organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Care Project and The Mission Continues, and various state Departments of Labor. In addition to providing recommendations, these partnerships assist with career and college placement, offer job fairs, host career placement workshops, and supply equipment for the veterans. VCP affiliates also include feeder programs in which the VCP trains veterans on skills that are directly applicable to positions offered by certain agencies and institutions, including the Savannah River National Laboratory and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). These agencies endeavor to offer employment opportunities following the VCP experience.
Over the past year, the VCP has employed 50 veterans from all four branches of the US military within the three laboratories. Of those veterans, 13 have successfully transitioned to the civilian workforce, 11 have decided to pursue higher education, and three are volunteering in their communities. By the time veterans leave the VCP, they have gained experience with general skills, including inventory creation, objects processing and tracking, records analysis, re-housing and organization, data entry, database management, digital photography and scanning, technical report writing, as well as interpersonal skills and how to cope with their disability in an office setting. Veterans who have had the privilege of being a part of the VCP hope to see the program continue and help their fellow servicemen and women.
Bob Graf, an Army veteran, stated, “This project has the possibility of becoming the poster child for benefiting so many for so little [funding].”
Although the veterans are limited to a six-month term at the VCP, the supervisors, USACE staff, and their fellow VCP graduates continue to provide a support system. Veterans, in return, serve as the best spokespeople for the program by talking about their experiences and encouraging the government to continue its support of the program.
“Our service members who return from Iraq and Afghanistan and are transitioning from active duty, and the veterans who have already made the leap, need a coordinated approach to community reintegration,” explains Laurie Ott of the Wounded Warrior Care Project. “They need the training and employment that will help them gradually readjust to being back in a civilian environment, and most importantly, they need confidence that they can succeed.
“The VCP provides all of these elements to our veterans by giving them meaningful work in a supportive environment. I have seen the difference it’s made in the lives of those returned from combat. They are curating, preserving, and photographing our nation’s treasures, but more importantly, this program allows our veterans to feel they themselves are the real treasure.”
Recovery Act funding for the VCP expired in September 2010. The project is currently being funded for one year by the US Army Corps of Engineers. In May 2010, H.R. 5282 was sponsored by Representative John Barrow of Georgia to continue the VCP for four years by “[providing] funds to the Army Corps of Engineers to hire veterans and members of the Armed Forces to assist the Corps with curation and historic preservation activities, and for other purposes.” This bill, which is currently seeking support in the Senate, would provide funding to expand the VCP facilities to other areas of the US with high concentrations of veterans in need of training.
In summary, the United States currently has and soon will have an even larger number of veterans who will require new job skills and long-term training. The VCP represents an innovative program that addresses the needs of the veterans in a non-traditional training setting while caring for the nation’s archeological history.
To learn more about The Veteran’s Curation Project (VCP), please visit their website.