Kent State alum has vets ‘talk war’


R.J Wilkinson, Kent State Alum and Iraq War veteran, is beginning a project to preserve the stories of war veterans because too often veterans pass away with their stories left untold.

Mark Oprea

R.J. Wilkinson, Iraq veteran and Kent State alum, is an advocate of the phrase that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

His latest project, entitled “Tell Me About The War,” intends to do just that — and much more.

By recording the war stories of U.S. war veterans, old and new, Wilkinson aims to “preserve a chunk of history” that he worries often goes untold. Because many infantrymen like Wilkinson come back from overseas with “nothing nice to say,” they keep their mouths shut, until someone or something encourages them to open up.

And this, he said, can last a half a century.

“Some kids will say, ‘Oh, my grandpa started telling me all these things about the war before he died,’” Wilkinson said. “But that kid may not be going to tell anyone else or remember it himself. Now that guy’s stories are gone forever. What I’m trying to do is prevent that.”

Wilkinson recalls his own grandfathers, both who fought in World War II and “never talked about it too much” to him. Although his one grandfather passed away when Wilkinson was four, the other lived long enough to communicate to his grandson the atrocities committed, attempting to steer him away.

When he was in kindergarten, Wilkinson recalls his grandfather pushing him on a swingset in his parents’ backyard in Northeast Ohio. When the 6-year-old Wilkinson brought up the subject of joining the military, his grandfather grabbed the chain of the swing.

“He stopped and stared off a bit and said to me, ‘If you ever decide to join the service, I’ll break both of your legs before you go.’”

But that didn’t hold Wilkinson back.

After high school, unsure about his future, he joined the military. He soon became an infantryman with the Bravo Company 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry “Death Dealers,” and stayed three-and-a-half years in active duty. He served in Germany, then 14 months in Baghdad, a lot of which Wilkinson only talks in detail to fellow veterans and alumni of his division. Before Wilkinson left for basic training, his grandfather finally opened up, telling war stories he said “that he’ll never forget.”

It was only a few months before Wilkinson was on leave from Iraq that his grandfather passed away. Thinking back on those years, Wilkinson wishes he could have been present to record them.

“I wish he could have said more when I was there,” Wilkinson said, “because whatever story he had is now gone forever.”

After the army, he enrolled in Kent State as a marketing major, joined the Veterans Club and soon became its president. As president, he pestered the university for benefits, like preferred parking and a club office. A recent “reverse auction” partnered with the Solon Veterans of Foreign Wars raised around $3,000 dollars in the process, which club member Brian Stofiel said was “the most successful event (they’ve) had in two decades.”

Stofiel, upcoming president of the Kent State Veterans Club, said that he’s confident that Wilkinson’s passion for helping fellow vets transfers well to his recent project. Stofiel even volunteered his own grandfather up for the task.

“Getting these guys on record before they die — it’s important,” Stofiel said. “So we need to do the best we can to keep these guys alive, so to speak.”

This is why, Wilkinson said, he’s focused on meeting with WWII and Vietnam vets “because they’ll be gone in a couple of years.”

Although Wilkinson only has GoPro cameras and recording equipment for sit-down interviews, he said he’s already garnering participants — from Stofiel’s grandfather to a man claiming he was Elvis Presley’s Platoon Sergeant when the King of Rock and Roll was serving in Germany.

It’s for these little gems that Wilkinson’s willing to talk to just about anyone.

“I can bring smaller stories…that the general society will never know,” he said. “And who knows. The more interviews I do with guys — I could be reconstructing the small bits and pieces of history that no one knew about.”

Wilkinson, whose been recently looking around Cleveland for potential producers for his show, said that he’ll opt in the meantime for a YouTube channel, ideally attracting appropriate sponsors from video shares. His promo, he hopes, will fund a future database along with a professional-looking “Tell Me About The War” website, “not just a site with a pizza menu and a phone number.”

If Wilkinson’s site blows up, he said that he hopes veterans post videos — not just from the United States, but “all over the world.” This, he said, will inspire him to travel, bringing his story-preserving philosophy to Europe, Asia, Russia and even Vietnam, to record “soldiers from the other side.”

If Wilkinson’s successful in his worldwide pursuit, he said that his ultimate goal of “preserving a chunk of history” can be made true — all because of personal accounts, comparing testimonies of age-old veterans that “wouldn’t have talked otherwise.”

“We’ll look at the history books, and we’ll be able to compare and say this is what (soldiers) saw and say that this is what really happened,” he said. “And hopefully, in the future, people will have a more detailed explanation of what happened other than ‘they raised the flag and drank some beer.’”

And what about Iraq and Afghanistan vets?

“Twenty or thirty years from now, things will have cooled over,” Wilkinson said. “But right now, I’m not really ready to do that.”

Contact Mark Oprea at [email protected].