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Advocating for Our Vets

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Cary-Grove High School grad Eric Gier has brought important war accounts to the world.

“What will I do with my life?” is a question on a lot of high schoolers’ minds. One Cary-Grove High School student turned his curiosity into action.

Eric Gier, a son of two veterans, already had an idea he might want to serve in the military after graduation. But in order to determine if it was right for him, he single-handedly interviewed 11 local veterans with the hope of further exploring the path. What started out as a small personal investigation soon blossomed into a large-scale project for the Veterans History Project (VHP) and the Library of Congress in which he preserved the oral histories of veterans who participated in foreign wars or conflicts from World War II to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Contemplating Serving His Country

Gier’s curiosity about serving began with his father, Lt. Col. Rick Gier, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq.

“He was the first person I really wanted to learn about because he never really talked about what he did then [in the service],” Gier said. “It all kind of just expanded from there.”

Although he cherished the information he gathered from his father, Gier began wondering if he should interview additional veterans to obtain an “unbiased opinion” regarding others’ service.

“I interviewed people to see if their experiences in war were worth it for them,” he explained. “Because that was my main concern — do I have what it takes to survive out there [in war] and is this what I want to do?”

Finding the Right Avenues

Gier’s journey began when he came across VHP online. The project, which is part of the American Folklife Center, aims to “collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”

Each oral history accepted by the VHP is then entered into the Library of Congress.

Gier’s search for local veterans was enabled by assistance from American Legion Adjunct Commander Bill Geary of American Legion Post 911 in Wauconda and Commander John Barrington of Post 964 in Lake Zurich. Both Commanders opened up their legions for him to present his project, which was received with overwhelming support and response. “I had an abundance of volunteer [interviewees], which I honestly was not expecting,” he said. “Once I told one, that one talked to another. One turned into nearly a dozen vets.”

VHP requirements include that each interview must be at least 30 minutes long with a time log detailing each question and answer. Each of Gier’s 11 interviews has been accepted and published in the Library of Congress.

Gier’s interviews included veterans from 27 to 95 years old who served in World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their stories include a prisoner of war held in five European prison camps, a helicopter crew chief shot down over Vietnam and a young solider who lost his leg in Iraq. Each veteran told a different story of heroism, he said.

“Their stories made wars real to me and made me think long and hard if I could make the same commitment to serve my country as these veterans,” Gier said. “I found myself looking at military service through their eyes and they taught me the definition of courage and commitment.”

Gier’s interviews quickly turned from career investigation to something bigger than he could have imagined.

“As he got more involved, it wasn’t about doing it for himself, the people looked forward to seeing him and being able to tell their story,” said Joan Gier, Eric’s mother. “One simple interview turned into so much more. He developed relationships with people and was able to give back.”

Beyond the Interviews

Gier’s love for history and desire to help veterans did not end with the completion of the VHP/Library of Congress project. Noticing the lack of a history club at his high school, Gier gathered fellow history buff friends and obtained faculty sponsorship from history teachers Katja Stonebraker and Nora Huff to create the first Cary-Grove History Club.

In addition to founding the club, Gier helped raise money to send eight McHenry County World War II veterans to Washing-ton, D.C., with Honor Flight to visit the National World War II Memorial. He also served as a veteran guardian on the July 2012 Honor Flight with the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois, the regional Honor Flight hub.

Great Support System

Gier’s contributions have greatly impacted not only veterans, but the community at large.

“I was impressed that a young teenager would be interested in veterans at all,” Geary said. “It is exciting to know that there are young people coming up who are interested in something beside themselves. Our country will be in good hands if people like Eric are in charge.”

Senior Vice Commander of the Lake Zurich American Legion, Chief Petty Officer Anthony Roberti, was equally impressed.

“What I like about this history project is that Eric has personalized it,” said Roberti, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He took the guidelines he had been given, developed a website and incorporated the many different veterans projects that he has been involved in, therefore making this project totally his own.”

Gier claims that the work was challenging, but well worth it. “I developed relationships with the veterans and hearing their stories first hand helped me understand what I could experience if I choose to serve,” he said.

Karen Phelps, family friend and founder of Cary-based Web design firm Landmark Innovations Inc., offered technical guidance with his website veterans-tribute.org.

“It was a great project to be a part of,” Phelps said. “I was really proud of what he was doing.”

Looking to the Future

Gier is currently a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy (class of 2019), due in no small part to his expansive work with veterans. “[I’ve] made this choice with a clearer vision, greater understanding and deeper appreciation of what could lie ahead — both good and bad — because of the American veterans interviewed,” he said.

His plan is to encourage others to conduct interviews and he urges the community to get involved. Gier encourages people of all ages to reach out to veterans, listen to their stories and value their service.

“This is a way for people young and old to see what veterans have done for us, and a way to understand the value they provide for our county,” Gier said. “It’s important to be involved because veterans support our country and protect our freedom. They deserve our support in return.”

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