Sample Interview Questions For Veterans
Here are questions to use when interviewing veterans who served in the United States armed forces during World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars.
A separate set of questions is available elsewhere for use when interviewing civilians (see also Sample Interview Questions for Civilians).
Tips for a Successful Interview
- Every interview should contain several segments. Dividing an interview into segments allows for gathering important details while nurturing memory. In the case of the Veterans History Project, we are hoping to capture recollections of life experiences and of the most memorable moments in wartime. We also hope these interviews will shed light on how the veteran's service influenced his or her postwar life.
- It is important to let the veteran tell his or her own story. The questions below were developed to provide general guidance only, so don't feel obliged to ask all the questions we are suggesting or to limit yourself to these questions.
- Have the veteran complete the Biographical Data Form in advance of the interview. You will notice that some of the questions may not apply to the person you are interviewing. To avoid asking those questions, review the Biographical Data Form before the interview. It will help you ask the most relevant questions.
- Feel free to share a few general questions with the participant beforehand. Often interviewees are more comfortable if they know what kinds of questions you might ask.
- Prepare yourself for the interview by reading about the war(s) the veteran served in and by reviewing maps and atlases. Please refer to the bibliographies and research tips elsewhere in this Project Kit or ask a local librarian for help in identifying appropriate books, articles, and other resources.
- See the Interviewing and Recording Guidelines for additional tips.
Segment 1: For the Record:
Make an introductory announcement at the start of each audio or video recording. Record on tape the date and place of the interview; the name of the person being interviewed; his or her birth date and current address; and the names of the people attending the interview, including the interviewer and his or her institutional affiliation or relationship to the interviewee and the name of the camera or recording operator if different than the interviewer. Ask the veteran what war(s) and branch of service he or she served in, what was his or her rank, and where he or she served.
Segment 2: Jogging Memory:
Were you drafted or did you enlist?
Where were you living at the time?
Why did you join?
Why did you pick the service branch you joined?
Do you recall your first days in service?
What did it feel like?
Tell me about your boot camp/training experience(s).
Do you remember your instructors?
How did you get through it?
Segment 3: Experiences:
Which war(s) did you serve in (WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf)?
Where exactly did you go?
Do you remember arriving and what it was like?
What was your job/assignment?
Did you see combat?
Were there many casualties in your unit?
Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences.
Were you a prisoner of war?
Tell me about your experiences in captivity and when freed.
Were you awarded any medals or citations?
How did you get them?
Higher ranks may be asked about battle planning. Those who sustained injuries may be asked about the circumstances.
Segment 4: Life:
Ask questions about life in the service and/or at the front or under fire.
How did you stay in touch with your family?
What was the food like?
Did you have plenty of supplies?
Did you feel pressure or stress?
Was there something special you did for "good luck"?
How did people entertain themselves?
Were there entertainers?
What did you do when on leave?
Where did you travel while in the service?
Do you recall any particularly humorous or unusual event?
What were some of the pranks that you or others would pull?
Do you have photographs?
Who are the people in the photographs?
What did you think of officers or fellow soldiers?
Did you keep a personal diary?
Segment 5: After Service:
Appropriateness of questions will vary if the veteran had a military career.
Do you recall the day your service ended?
Where were you?
What did you do in the days and weeks afterward?
Did you work or go back to school?
Was your education supported by the G.I. Bill?
Did you make any close friendships while in the service?
Did you continue any of those relationships?
For how long?
Did you join a veterans organization?
Segment 6: Later Years and Closing:
What did you go on to do as a career after the war?
Did your military experience influence your thinking about war or about the military in general?
If in a veterans organization, what kinds of activities does your post or association have?
Do you attend reunions?
How did your service and experiences affect your life?
Is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?
Thank the veteran for sharing his or her recollections.
Please be sure that the veteran, interviewer, and photographer (if any) sign the appropriate release forms found in the Project Kit.
The questions above were developed by the Veterans History Project team working in consultation with the American Folklife Center and the Oral History Association. Special acknowledgment is extended to Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian, United States Senate, and author of Doing Oral History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995).
Two local students were chosen as winners of the 2013 Kiwanis “Interview a Veteran” essay contest. Michael Stephens, a ninth grader at Kenwood High School, was winner for the high school division, and Christian Harris, a seventh grader from Clarksville Academy, took top honors for the middle school division. Read the winning essays below.
Sergeant Lee Clayton, Why I Served and how it Changed My Life
By Michael Stephens, 9th Grade, Kenwood High School
“Wow! You were an Army James Bond?”
Mr. Clayton chuckled deeply and clarified, “My job title was Electronic Warfare Cryptologic Analyst.”
Mr. Clayton is what I call “A great guy”. He is a math and physical education teacher at a local elementary school, tremendous athlete (Iowa long distance running champion back in the day), and a friendly, supportive neighbor. He is always ready with a smile and wave from the back yard. I would have never guessed he had been a decoder for national defense. I waited eagerly to hear his story.
In 1985 Mr. Clayton was a starving seminary college student. He had run out of money for tuition and was working two menial jobs. What he really wanted to do was work as
a natural photo journalist. Unfortunately, he needed training and jobs were scarce. A supportive neighbor, interestingly a WWII Holocaust survivor, pulled some strings and arranged for Mr. Clayton to meet a couple of military recruiters in Des Moines. Competition for photo journalism in the military was stiff and preliminary testing was required. The test consisted of fifty trigonometry questions. Mr. Clayton made a 100%. Then he took two additional two hour tests, which he also aced. His scores in reasoning and logic were high and he had an aptitude for language. (He had learned Greek and Hebrew in seminary school.) He was recommended for the National Intelligence University (NIU) in Washington, DC. Thus his career goals shifted and he began his study of national defense.
Not only was NIU extremely selective, it was also nearly impossible to pass the six month course. Not one student passed in the two years previous to Mr. Clayton and he was the only graduate out of his class of twenty. This supported the depth of Mr. Clayton’s talent, as most of his fellow students were college graduates and there were even a few with PhDs. The school required perfection, an abstract way of thinking and the academic load was very stressful. Simultaneously, there were many security clearances to pass. Mr. Clayton was hooked up to a machine and questioned for hours on several occasions. His family was investigated as well as many people from his hometown. He admitted that much of the time he was scared but that prayer helped him get through it.
Mr. Clayton was not able to disclose the details of any his assignments as a Warfare Specialist. He did tell me that the most rewarding part of his job was feeling very accomplished after he graduated from NIU. It trained him to be disciplined and focused. There were times when he spent 24 hours straight in a “Think Tank” until he was able to break a code. Some codes had information concerning terrorism but at other times he used his talents for peaceful purposes. The Army taught him Farsi, a Persian Language used in Afghanistan, which was helpful in negotiations and written correspondence. The most fun he had was attending the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In fact, he still holds the record for shortest time to complete a five mile run with a 50 pound backpack full of equipment.
I want to thank Mr. Clayton for sharing his story with me and for serving in the military from 1985 to 1989. I learned several important lessons. First, I realized that there is an application for learning math and deductive reasoning. Second, I learned that it is important to be open to new ideas and opportunities. Third, Mr. Clayton’s success is credited to his hard work and persistency. Lastly, and most importantly, I learned that you don’t have to be out on the battle field carrying a gun to be a military hero. Mr. Clayton potentially saved millions of lives through decoding messages and serving as an interpreter for negotiations. Wow! That’s better than James Bond!
Christian Harris and Senator Mark Green
Leroy Davis: How I Was Treated During and After My Service
by Christian Harris, 7th Grade, Clarksville Academy
Imagine yourself in the middle of the Ardenne Forest. Artillery shells are bursting in the treetops and snow is twelve to fifteen inches deep on the ground. This is exactly the kind of situation that Sergeant First Class Leroy Davis and his squad found themselves in during the decisive World War II, Battle of the Bulge. Sergeant Davis provided support by serving as a mortarman for his Company. Soldiers from his Division had to fight not only a fierce German assault, but bitter temperatures as low as 10-30 degrees below zero.
Sergeant Davis’s journey began in September of 1944. During this time, the 99th Infantry Division received orders to go overseas. The Division was divided into three parts and loaded onto three separate trains. This was to assure that the entire Division would not be totally lost should there be an act of sabotage aboard one of the trains. Sergeant Davis headed north through Missouri and into Canada eventually making his way to Boston. There he boarded the Explorer Liberty Ship, which transported his Division to Scotland. After thirteen days of traveling across a rough ocean, he finally arrived at Scotland on October 11, 1944. His Division would soon realize that the warmth and comfort of Scotland would be a far cry from the frozen fields of the Ardeene Forest.
It was a daily struggle for a young soldier of twenty-one to stay alive in the many battles during this part of the war. Sergeant Davis remembers several occasions where he was almost killed in action. One afternoon he and his squad found an abandoned house to get some much-needed rest. The next morning an artillery shell landed just outside the window causing shrapnel to strike one of his buddies in the head. The wounded soldier was taken off by a field ambulance. Another incident had Sergeant Davis talking to a close friend who was sheltered in a foxhole. Upon returning to his mortar position, an artillery round landed close to where Sergeant Davis was formally standing, thus resulting in the death of his friend.
If you talk to any soldier serving today or from any previous war, they will tell you that the most important thing is to look out for each other. Because of this, many lifetime friendships are established. Everywhere Sergeant Davis went, he received words of encouragement and appreciation for his part in the war. When Germany finally surrendered and American troops were allowed to come home, Sergeant Davis never got to be a part of the parades. Since he was not among the first to be deployed to the European Campaign, he had to wait a few months before returning back to the States. Because of this, he missed out on many celebrations.
It is an honor and a privilege anytime anyone can interview a World War II Veteran. They can provide a valuable insight about the war that cannot be found in textbooks today. Sergeant Davis would say that the true heroes of the war are lying buried in the fields of honor throughout Europe. Because of his sacrifice and the sacrifice of countless other brave men, I am living in a country today enjoying the freedoms they provided. If respect can be measured in bravery, Sergeant Leroy Davis and his fellow soldiers have earned a place in our hearts forever.