Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography Courtesy of Veterans Heritage Project

Each fall since 2004, teachers at schools across Arizona have guided their students as they interview some of the bravest men and women in our country.

Those interviews have resulted in numerous collections of war and peacetime service stories from veterans of all branches and eras that, written by students, are more real — and more resonant — than any history book.

With a two-pronged mission of fostering students’ character and honoring veterans’ service, Veterans Heritage Project is celebrating its 20th anniversary of building a better America while simultaneously preserving legacies of sacrifice, service, duty and loyalty.

Connecting Students With Veterans
Barbara Hatch was teaching history at the Judson School in Paradise Valley in 1998 when Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” was released in theaters. Eagerly talking about the epic war film that depicts the Normandy landings during World War II, Hatch’s students asked if she had seen it.

“I responded, ‘No, I do not like war movies,’” Hatch admits. “But, to be real to my students, I felt as though I needed to see it. After all, if I am going to teach world history, then I need to be able to look it in the eye and absorb it.

“So I saw the movie and, the next day, I told my students that they really should hear from the people who were there — the World War II veterans. I had always warned them to be careful of movies that claim to be historical fact when so much of them is historical fiction.”

The teacher then wrote a letter to a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, inviting World War II veterans to come to her class and address her students about the realities of the Normandy landings. She was eventually contacted by Ralph George — a member of VFW Post 7507 in Fountain Hills, who offered to organize a group of veterans to speak in Hatch’s classroom.

Having found their presentation and discussion beneficial to all parties, including herself, Hatch continued to bring veterans into her classroom periodically over the next few years, even as she shifted to different school districts in the community — including Scottsdale and Cave Creek.

In 2004, having heard that Salt River Project was funding programs that documented Arizona’s history in celebration of the state’s centennial, one of Hatch’s students asked her if she would help organize a project that involved their veteran speakers. The teacher and her students then invited veterans to share their service stories via recorded interviews, which were then submitted to a national military history archive called the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

With Hatch’s 20 years of experience as a yearbook advisor, she and her students authored and published a hardbound volume of veterans’ stories in “Since You Asked: Arizona Veterans Share Their Memories.” Arizona Heritage Project was officially born as an after-school club, publishing a new volume of “Since You Asked” annually.

Five years later, in 2009, parents Laura Byers and Donna Ward acknowledged the profound impact that the club was having on their sons’ character and academic focus and banded together with other parents and supporters to incorporate Veterans Heritage Project as a nonprofit organization, enabling the club to be replicated at other schools.

By 2013, Veterans Heritage Project had grown to 11 chapters, at which time Hatch retired from her 40-year career as a teacher and began volunteering full-time as the nonprofit organization’s program director.

Appreciation & Respect
Since then, Veterans Heritage Project has published 19 volumes of “Since You Asked,” with the 20th volume set to be unveiled at a free community reception and book signing in the spring of 2024. Subtitled “A Salute to Gold Star Families,” the volume will be dedicated to parents, spouses, siblings and children of members of our armed forces who died as a result of their service during a period of war.

The nonprofit organization also now facilitates after-school programs in 30 schools — including Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, Chaparral High School in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix.

Since 2004, 2,683 veterans’ legacies have been preserved through the program. The nonprofit organization’s executive director Michelle DiMuro recently issued a challenge to school partners to interview and write the stories of at least 317 veterans this fall, thereby reaching a milestone of 3,000 veteran legacies preserved by this spring — a momentous achievement in celebration of Veterans Heritage Project’s 20th anniversary.

To help mark the occasion, Sanderson Lincoln is sponsoring the nonprofit organization’s At-TEN-tion Pays Raffle with a $10,000 cash prize. Tickets are priced at $100 and a winner will be drawn at Veterans Heritage Project’s March 2 fundraising event — the Saluting Stories of Service Gala.

Proceeds from the raffle will help the nonprofit organization serve more students and veterans by funding program technology, publishing, veteran recognition, teacher training and school outreach expenses.

Sanderson Lincoln brand manager Patrick Heigl says that the local, family-owned business has a long history of civic responsibility and is proud to be able to help connect students with our nation’s heroes.

“Veterans deserve our highest level of appreciation and respect,” Heigl adds. “This program does just that.”

A Lot Of Lives Touched
Connecting students with veterans has led to 100% of student authors graduating, 95% pursuing college, a quarter of veterans telling their story for the first time and two-thirds of veterans finding the process cathartic. Since 2004, Veterans Heritage Project has also awarded $198,000 in scholarships to participating students.

Hatch says that witnessing veterans healing and students succeeding because of a program that organically expanded with parents’ faith in its mission has made her retirement a remarkably rewarding experience.

“I am extremely proud of what we created, and I am extremely satisfied with the work that goes into it,” Hatch adds. “I have probably heard the stories of at least 1,500 veterans; I mean, really heard their stories.

“My heart absolutely jumps out of my chest with pride when I look at the master list and see [close to 3,000] veterans’ names on it; many of whom felt forgotten and found a new mission talking to kids because it validated their service.

“Then I look at all of the students’ names and I think, ‘That is a lot of lives that have been touched.’ It does not get any better than that — especially when you see them become amazing human beings.”

Honor, Protect, Serve
Wednesday, Nov. 8 // 4 p.m. // Cochise-Geronimo Clubhouse // 10333 Rockaway Hills Drive, Scottsdale // Free // veteransheritage.org