ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Millions of men and women have served our country’s military in both war and peacetime.  Over the past few years, University of Central Florida historians together with students have spoken to hundreds of Central Florida veterans about their experiences and time in the service through the Veterans History Project. 

“It’s really just been about and honoring the veterans by listening to them,” said Dr. Barbara Gannon, assistant professor of history at UCF. 

What You Need To Know

  • The UCF Veterans History Project has documented the experiences of more than 600 veterans

  • Interviews have gone virtual, due to the COVID-19 pandemic

  • More: Visit the Veterans History Project website

Now, despite the pandemic they're finding success in continuing their collection of oral histories.

“I kept my scrapbook and that has all my letters of commendations and everything in it,” said Leslie Beltz, a Vietnam veteran.

These days, Beltz sits on the Orange County Mayor's Veterans Advisory Council and serves as the Veterans Chair of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Winter Park.  Now retired, the Vietnam veteran loves to talk about her time in the Army. 

“I was one of the first women with children to join," she siad. "Once Congress approved that, I jumped on it."

After joining up in 1974, Beltz became used to breaking barriers as a woman while on the job for the Army. She drove big trucks and even trained as a welder while in the service. 

“I trained with the 509 Pathfinders in repel training," Beltz said. "I was the first woman in the Army to do that."

Hearing that UCF was collecting oral histories from veterans, she reached out. 

“When I finally got up the nerve, I called her and contacted her and said, 'OK, I think I’m ready to do this,' and then the virus hit,” Beltz said, laughing. 

The situation was the same for the researchers at UCF, Gannon said.

“We were doing quite well," she said. "And then COVID-19 hit."

Over the years, Gannon and her team of interns at UCF have collected more than 600 veterans accounts throughout Central Florida, helping bring history alive. 

“It’s different," Gannon said. "Battle of the Bulge is alive. It’s not just a few paragraphs in a book."

After an abrupt stop because of coronavirus, they’ve now started back up with virtual interviews instead.

“I never thought a veteran that has these experiences that coincide so directly to my historicism,” said UCF senior Brandon Kirk.

Kirk is helping Gannon through next summer to conduct the veterans interviews. 

“I did a three-part series interviewing at 106-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor, veteran of the Pacific Theater, and he was on the same air craft carrier as George Bush Sr., the USS San Jacinto," Kirk said. "He’s a local legend in Orlando, he has nine battle stars and despite his age, it was like talking to my grandfather."

After a career of firsts, Beltz recently became the first veteran to virtually share her story with UCF.

“I wanted to tell my story because the young ladies of today, they don’t quite understand or can identify with the fact that in the 20th Century, women were very much limited in what they could do, unlike today,” Beltz said. "And I'm pleased every time I see a professional woman out there the age of my grandchildren, I'm going, 'Yes!'"

And hopefully, by hearing the accounts of Beltz and hundreds of other veterans, they help to encourage others to break barriers of their own. 

If you or someone you know here in Central Florida that has served in the military, UCF is continuing their veterans history project and is looking to speak with veterans of all branches and all ages. 

To find out how to connect with UCF about the project or to listen to these oral histories, visit the Veterans History Project website.