COLUMBIA, S.C. — Lyle Hendrick has a lot of stories to tell. The former Green Beret officer, who was stationed in Germany during the 1980s, fills rooms with his presence — thanks to his 6-foot-5-inch frame, booming voice and gregarious personality.
Hendrick’s story is a winding one, and he’s told it many times. It starts with his 1974 enlistment and includes a post-military career as a private investigator, as well as a 16-month stint as a private military contractor in Iraq during the early years of the war there that later featured in The New York Times Magazine.
But Hendrick is more interested in helping other Special Forces veterans to tell their stories now, despite their reputation as so-called “quiet professionals.” And he’s leading a renewed effort to sit down and record them — dubbed the Special Forces Oral History Project.
Army Times sat down Wednesday morning and spoke with Hendrick and Andrea L’Hommedieu, who is the director of the oral history department at Hendrick’s alma mater, the University of South Carolina.
“People need to understand what makes the heart of a Green Beret,” Hendrick said. “The Green Beret [veterans] out there need to know that their story does not end with active duty, and that it is really important that they share [their stories] because it’s a way they can give back as leaders to the younger men who aspire to come up behind them.”
Oral history is the practice of creating permanent recordings of people telling their life stories to trained interviewers, frequently on tape or camera.
When it comes to the stories of veterans, this technique of saving history became widely utilized in the 1990s in order to capture the stories of World War II veterans before they died. This ultimately led Congress to authorize and fund the still-ongoing Veterans History Project in 2000, a Library of Congress initiative that helps to preserve stories collected by volunteers around the country.
And the stories go beyond one-off tales of combat and seek “deep context,” L’Hommedieu said.
“We’re not just flying in and out to say ‘Hey, we want to grab some stories about your military experience,’” she explained. “We want to know about you. We want to know who you are. We want to know who your family was. That’s important — to you and to us...we’re trying to let [participants] tell their story in full.”
L’Hommedieu, who has been a professional librarian for three decades, first started collecting veterans’ oral histories as part of an assignment for her students a few years ago. The resulting South Carolina Veterans Oral History Project won national awards — and its public exhibit caught the eye of Hendrick.
“As I’m walking around the exhibit, I’m thinking, ‘So where are the Green Beret stories?’” Hendrick said. “So that’s when I sought out [L’Hommedieu].”
After the two connected, they quickly worked out a general framework for the project.
Hendrick, who has a deep network in the SF community, would get interviewer training and take point on meeting veterans to record their stories.
L’Hommedieu and the university would offer institutional support, including permanent hosting and archiving of the interviews.
“By linking [the project] to my alma mater...there’s a connection of passion, structure, credibility and trustworthiness,” that Hendrick said will help foster trust in his interviewees.
Everything was set to go, and the pair announced a pilot version of the project at the 2019 Special Forces Association meeting. Hendrick even conducted “about 10 or 11″ interviews, he said.
But before the effort could expand, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and put the project on hold, but didn’t stop it.
“You don’t quit, ever,” Hendrick said. “I’m just a guy that has a passion for my SF brothers.”
Relaunching the SFOHP
Thanks to the continued dedication of Hendrick and L’Hommedieu, the project will relaunch later this year at the October international conference of the Special Forces Association in Las Vegas, Nevada.
On the to-do list between now and then — wooing potential donors, forming a non-profit entity to process donations and finding more Special Forces veterans for interviews.
L’Hommedieu explained that funding for long-term digital storage is “critical,” and she wants to be able to hire a staffer dedicated to processing and preparing the interviews for dissemination online.
A larger funding base would allow Hendrick to tour the country for additional interviews beyond the national Special Forces Association event, he said.
In addition to expanding the historical record, Hendrick thinks that Green Beret vets stand to benefit from telling their stories.
Storytelling — to include sitting down for an oral history interview — can fit into a broader program of “post-traumatic growth,” he argued.
“A major part of that is being able to share and tell their stories,” Hendrick said. “I’m a testament to that.”
“We’re the quiet professionals, but not mute.”
If you are a Special Forces veteran interested in telling your story to the Special Forces Oral History Project this fall, or if you wish to otherwise support the Special Forces Oral History Project, Hendrick asks that you email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.