The Virginia National Guard’s tiniest reserve unit has been called up for Middle East duty, and its three members are packing their tape recorders, typewriters, cameras and sketch pads to capture the history of American troops in Operation Desert Shield.
The commander of the 116th Military History Detachment, Maj. Robert K. Wright Jr., is a historian at the Army Center of Military History in Washington. His entire troop contingent is made up of Ladona Kirkland, 28, a computer graphics specialist from Dale City, Va., and John Freund, 22, an art student who works in a Springfield, Va., record store.
The 116th and six other Army historical units from across the country were activated this week and will leave soon for Saudi Arabia. There, they will gather documents, interview soldiers, take photographs and draw sketches of life in the desert.
“We’ll interview people about their daily activities and get as much down on tape as possible,” said Kirkland, who celebrated Christmas Saturday with her husband and 15-month-old baby before departing for Ft. Lee, Va., her last stop before the Persian Gulf. “What we want to do is get a feel for life over there.”
The findings of the historical units will be used to compile the official Army history of Operation Desert Shield. Their work will be placed in the National Archives for historians and the public, and will be used in course work at war colleges and military schools, according to historians at the Military History Center.
Wright wrote in an essay on the purpose of the units: “We are not there to write a book, we are there to make sure the book writers can find what they need.” He added that American efforts to “gather and preserve battle details” date to 1775 and the battle with the British at Lexington.
After World War I, when documentation of the war was being collected, it became clear that there were gaps that could have been filled if historians had been in the field. Since then, Wright said, each branch of the armed services has assigned historians to military operations, collecting bits of history as it happens.
Last year, for example, Marine historical units dispatched to Panama as part of Operation Just Cause returned with 14 crates of material, according to a staff member at the Marine Corps Historical Center.