Managing Your Business
Spotlight: Footsteps Researchers Helps Us Remember America's Veterans
Independence Day is a time for Americans to enjoy cook-outs and fireworks, but it's also a day of remembrance. We commemorate our history and the men and women who fought and died to protect our country.
There are few organizations more passionate about American history than Footsteps Researchers. This small business is dedicated to remembering individual American soldiers through research and education. They're based in St. Louis, Missouri, but have historians and tour guides around the world. If you have a loved one who took part in WWII, Footsteps Researchers' impressive research team can help you learn about their experience, both on paper in the form of historical documents, and in-person with guided tours of battlegrounds.
Today we talk about the past, present, and future with Footsteps founders Joey van Meesen and Myra Miller, Ph.D.
What inspired you to start Footsteps Researchers? What motivates you to stay involved?
While watching a documentary about WWII one evening, I realized I didn't know anything about what my dad did during the war. He died many years earlier without ever talking much about his experience in the Army. I didn't even know what unit he was in.
In 2016, I started researching his service and tracing his footsteps through Europe in person. It was a life-changing experience that inspired me to help others get the same gift of understanding their fathers' legacies. I realized that, living in St. Louis near the National Archives, I could help people around the world. I have since led many people on footsteps tours with our guides on the ground.
I've been passionate about WWII history since I was a kid. I basically grew up on the battlefields. Every summer, my dad would take me to the Ardennes in Belgium and Luxembourg, where the Battle of the Bulge took place. We'd visit museums and study the battle. We still repeat our trip every year.
We have a team of passionate experts who depend on us to lead the way. Every day is an adventure, and we communicate daily as a team from all parts of the globe. The most exciting thing is when we help a family find new information about their beloved soldier or to see their face on a footsteps tour when we surprise them!
What skills helped you start Footsteps Researchers? What new skills have you learned since it began?
The research skills I learned in my doctoral program definitely helped. I spent many years as a university professor, and I love working with younger people who are passionate about their area of expertise and trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. In addition to genealogical searches, we had to learn workflow programs, database building, social media team marketing, and archive research.
By the time I was 23 and started my Master's program in Military History, I already learned a lot about the US Army and its organization. Working with Myra under Footsteps has not only increased my knowledge of the US Army during WWII but, more importantly, I've learned about the various types of archive material. This really helps us get a grasp of what type of information is out there and where we have to look to answer certain questions.
How did you two come together to create this?
Joey contacted me expressing interest in getting Morning Reports, but he was young and didn't have much money. I decided we could barter and trade. We hit it off in the very beginning with like-minded ideas and interests. After brainstorming together, we came up with the name Footsteps Researchers, and it exploded. We have so much fun together. I am older with lots of experience, and he is younger with great knowledge and skills. We just work well together!
Why, in your words, is history important?
There's a quote I like from a song called Ghost Town by the band Radical Face, "All my life is wrapped up in today." What that means to me is that everything you've ever experienced is still with you today. All your experiences provided you with the life lessons that make you who you are. Your past is a part of your identity.
I believe that is the same with history on a national level. History gives us identity and allows us to answer questions about who we are as a nation and why we do things the way we do.
What's something most people wouldn't know about your work?
How long it takes to do archival work behind the scenes and pull the stories together.
It depends on what the client is looking for. If it is just to request a file, it depends on the size of the file and other factors. Morning Reports are a minimum two hours just to get started. To do a comprehensive Footsteps Package or to design a footsteps tour, it is hours of specialized research.
I've been there with Myra at the archives, and it really is time-consuming. People just think we can spend our whole day getting archive material for free. On my side, it's probably that most people have no idea about the variety of resources we combine to trace the footsteps.
Tell us about some of the people you've met doing your research and tours.
Oh my goodness! This is my favorite part of the whole business — meeting everyone! Not only the clients but when our team gets together in various parts of the world, it is amazing. We all communicate every day, which is fun. The best part is getting to meet the veterans in person. Hearing them tell their stories is something that you can't replicate through a book.
For me, the first thing that comes to mind is a documentary we worked on. As the guy on the ground, I was the person to research the stories of a handful of living WWII veterans, including a soldier named David Marshall. He came to Europe for the documentary, and we traced his footsteps with him.
David fought with the 84th Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge and Germany. After his best friend was killed, David literally had to step over his friend's body while trying to not get hit by enemy artillery fire. Working with veterans like David is what I'm most proud of. After all those years of research and learning about WWII, I could finally give something back to these men who put their lives on the line to liberate Europe.
Your team is spread out across the globe. What are the difficulties you face working together across such distances?
The team was carefully selected both geographically and by skillset. We wanted one expert in each major geographic area of World War II. We looked for young, social media-savvy people who had the same mindset as we did. We hand-picked everyone and had to turn some people down who wanted on the team.
In the United States, I lead our Archive and Research team and am administrator of the business. In Europe, we have our experts and tour guides led by Joey in The Netherlands. He's an expert on the US Army in general and focuses on Luxembourg, Operation Market Garden, Okinawa, and the Pacific Theater.
Bob Konings in Belgium is our Battle of the Bulge battlefield tour guide as well as an owner of a bed and breakfast in the Ardennes. Florent Plana is our expert in the Normandy and Brittany regions of France and specializes in Operation Overlord. In Genoa, Alessio Parisi is our Italy expert.
Loic Jankowiak's expertise is Operation Dragoon and the southern France campaign. Ben Nightingale lives in England and has a summer home in the middle of the hedgerows of France. Nils Hagemann is our Germany expert.
With social media, communication is not difficult at all. We mostly use Facebook Messenger Group Chats to talk and share things.
Yeah, I don't think there are any difficulties. Our knowledge of the various areas of WWII makes us a great team. It took some time before some team members understood how powerful a team like this could be. Getting everyone's information and archive material in our database is a huge help.
What has been Footsteps' greatest challenge?
Funding! I used all of my retirement funds and credit lines to get started because we had this great idea and just kept building. Since nobody has ever done a team like this before, we had to figure out our systems and workflow programs. That took some time, as we were inventing things as we went.
The hardest challenge is probably explaining to the rest of the world what is possible. Most people have no idea that our research is very detailed and accurate. We really live up to our name, but I think most people don't know that. It's only after you explain to someone how you work and you show them the results that they are amazed.
What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying?
Digging through archive material to help families solve questions and find answers.
Helping families find and follow their beloved veteran's footsteps through WWII. Also, working with my team members from around the world! I love this team and our mission. I plan to continue doing this as long as possible, until someday when I have to pass it all to Joey!
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
The King Size project. We helped identify a plane and crew that crashed on Christmas Day, 1944, in LaFosse, Belgium. There were two survivors and seven killed. We took the children of one of the survivors back to the crash site and did a massive dig. We found parts of the plane, which are now in a museum in Grandmenil, Belgium.
The documentary I did with the living WWII veterans. That and my Master's thesis, which I wrote using some of our archive material. The topic was on how military maps helped win WWI and WWII.
What's something about your work that moves you?
Through our nonprofit arm, Legacy: Lost & Found, we return lost relics to family members. The items that are found might only have a name or an ASN number. They require lots of research before we can even begin searching for the family. Then when we find them and return the item ... it's so emotional!
We returned a pocket knife found in a foxhole in Germany to the soldier's daughters in Alabama. There was a record disc with the voice of a soldier killed in action months after recording it in 1945. We gave that to his family in San Francisco. We found a dog tag in Italy and returned it to the soldier's daughter and son in Maine.
How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business? What are you doing to adapt?
Since we are a research and tour business, we were affected 100% immediately. The National Archives closed the research rooms on March 13th while we were in the middle of 72 open projects. We're unable to finish projects or invoice clients until we can get back in the research rooms.
We had six European footsteps tours scheduled and invoiced. Because of the travel industry shutdown, we had to cancel everything and lost 100% on tours. We're hoping to reschedule once the countries reopen to international travelers.
I've been learning a whole new set of skills where I combine history and geographic information Systems to create maps. We are currently working on an interactive map on the Battle of Okinawa, where people can explore the battle day by day and see where both the units and frontlines are. A virtual way of exploring the footsteps!
We've talked a lot about the past. What's in the future for Footsteps Researchers?
We aim to maintain the strong team we are today and streamline our workflow to help descendants looking for information quickly. We want to return more items to families and lead many footsteps tours to Europe and the Pacific. Our mapping and footsteps tours are essential to build and improve.
I hope we have our own documentary series out there. We're currently working on two documentary ideas and hope to be producing in the next five years.
What's the best advice you ever received about running a business?
Believe in your services or product.
And don't stress!
Do you have a message to share?
It's never too late to learn about your family and veterans' experiences. We must never let the next generation forget what the Greatest Generation accomplished to liberate entire countries from evil.
Don't look away from the past. Not even from the bad things. Embrace it and learn from it. --
If you'd like to know more about Footsteps Researchers and their work, or if you'd like to trace the footsteps of a special vet in your life, visit Footsteps Researchers online at footstepsresearchers.com or check out their Facebook page.
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