Twelve years into his military career, Robert Trospar felt the terror of combat for the first time.
He'd been in Vietnam just six weeks when the rockets rained down late one night on Pleiku Air Base, where he served as an Air Force air controller.
“I woke up in the night, it was like the whole world was exploding,” recalled Trospar, now 74 and living in Papillion. “Right as I was coming out the door, this hangar blew up. It just disintegrated. I said, 'Man, these people are trying to kill me!' ”
Trospar would leave the Air Force following his Vietnam tour, then join the Navy for 17 years more. He served aboard the USS Midway during the chaotic fall of South Vietnam, helping to evacuate thousands of Vietnamese refugees.
He kept his war stories mostly to himself — until Tuesday, when he shared them with the world.
Trospar was one of 27 veterans interviewed at Bellevue's Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home as part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Another 50 told their stories Monday in Lincoln. The events were coordinated through the offices of U.S. Reps. Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry, who both attended Tuesday's event.
With unanimous, bipartisan support, Congress voted in 2000 to create the project so the stories of veterans could be preserved permanently. Every veteran's interview is recorded on audiotape or videotape and kept permanently in the Library of Congress.
“It's more than just your story, from your perspective,” Terry said. “It's real life history.”
Robert Patrick, a retired Army colonel who has been the project director since 2007, said more than 89,000 stories already have been collected, making it the largest oral-history project ever undertaken. About 1,500 of the veterans interviewed are from Nebraska.
The interviews cover conflicts from World War I to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are available to anyone who wants to hear them. Many can be accessed online through the Veterans History Project website, www.loc.gov/vets.
“It's all about what we call the human experience of war,” Patrick said. “Researchers come in to hear about how war is fought, from the bottom up.”
He said any veteran may submit a story, through the mail or online. Kits are available to guide interviewers in asking questions of veterans. Frequently schools send students to conduct interviews as a way to help them connect with history in a personal way.
One of Tuesday's interviewers was Aaron Wattenbach, 39, a Bellevue University student and Nebraska National Guardsman who is himself a combat veteran. He talked with Paul Nichols, 74, who served in the Marine Corps and the Air Force during a career that spanned 26 years and included Vietnam.
They found that the sometimes hilarious bureaucratic chaos of military life — which Wattenbach saw captured on the 1970s TV series “M*A*S*H” — bound them together, although their service took place decades apart.
“In Iraq, it was a glorious, unorganized mess,” Wattenbach said. “It's funny, listening to him tell his story. I was, like, 'Holy cow, we did that, too!' ”
Barbara Muhs of Bellevue remembers hearing nothing from her husband, Don, who flew Air Force cargo transports in Vietnam, for two weeks after the Tet Offensive in early 1968. She learned more of the story sitting by his side Tuesday.
He had flown his C-141 into Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon just moments before the Viet Cong launched a massive attack.
“I didn't even have time to get to the barracks before they started shooting,” said Muhs, 80, who retired in 1983. “It was actually a war zone after that.”
Veterans often keep their war stories to themselves. The project gives some family members a chance to hear these stories for the first time.
“I hardly ever talk about it, unless it's with a veteran,” said Loren Berlie, 89, of Blair, who served in the Pacific from 1944-46, including the bloody battle of Iwo Jima.
His daughter, Joan Jurek of Bellevue, was born more than 20 years after the war. She knew little about his service.
“Growing up with him, you didn't realize the importance of World War II because you never heard any stories,” Jurek said. “I relish my three daughters, having them take an interest because their grandpa served in World War II.”
Of course, a few of the tales may remain untold until there's a roomful of veterans and a pitcher or two of beer.
Said Berlie, smiling, “We can't tell all of our secrets, you know.”