Living history: How veterans are using the past to find present fulfillment

The veteran participating in living history will find a sense of belonging that only a veteran can truly understand

Living history: How veterans are using the past to find present fulfillment

John Persinger, in his role as the Union Brigade Commander, watches from his HQ as the troops ready themselves for Parade at the Fort Stevens reenactment at Fort Stevens, OR. (Photo courtesy of John Persinger)

By John E. Persinger, American Military University Alumnus

With the recent attention focused on the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the centennial of the start of World War I, and the 70th anniversary of D-Day, living historians, or reenactors, are in the public eye. The allure of joining their ranks goes beyond firing weapons to deeper motivations for veterans.

The camaraderie found in military units is hard to find elsewhere. The bonds formed by people united in a common purpose and then subjected to hardship are well-forged.  While different from those formed in combat, the relationships established through reenacting can be quite strong. Although participation is voluntary, the camaraderie is genuine. 

Portraying a soldier on campaign, wearing and carrying only what they did in that particular era, preparing and sharing rations, and making shelter in the heat of summer or the chill of spring can only be accomplished by the steadfast dedication and cooperation of all members of the unit. Just like modern-day soldiers, reenactors need to look out for one another.

The procedures followed at a living history encampment can feel restricting to the average civilian, but are as comfortable to the veteran as a broken-in pair of combat boots. This familiarity allows for a more natural participation and portrayal of the soldiers of the past.  Marching in step with a drum or cadence is second nature, as is the wearing of a uniform. Anyone who has stood for a pass and review or change of command will easily recognize the daily parade that is held to post orders and provide accountability. Reenactments provide a structured environment that feels normal and comforting.

Another major motivator for veterans joining reenacting is to honor those who have served before and to ensure that what they endured in the course of their service is not forgotten. Reenacting portrays the actions of individual soldiers and units to the public. By participating in an event that honors those individuals, members act on the same sense of pride that motivates current service members to not misrepresent their branch of service, nor act inappropriately.

For many, reenacting provides a return to a time in their lives that defined who they are now, personally and professionally. While it may be a different era, participating enables veterans to continue to serve by bringing the past alive. The opportunity to use skills from their service--such as drill, leading small teams, and mentoring new leaders--and to pass along life skills are all aspects of reenacting that veterans find rewarding. 

Living historians participate for as many reasons are there are military uniforms, but the attraction for veterans lies in reconnecting with an aspect of their service that may be otherwise missing from civilian life such as the camaraderie, the inherent structure, honoring fellow soldiers, or a desire to pass on what they learned in the service. The veteran participating in living history will find a sense of belonging that only a veteran can truly understand.

John Persinger is a US Army Veteran (1985-1989) and a 2014 graduate of American Military University with a BA in Military History.  As a member of the Washington Civil War Association, he has participated in living history events since 1994, commanded units representing both sides of the American Civil War, and served five years on the WCWA Administrative Board as the Union Brigade Commander.