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updated: 8/27/2017 8:24 AM

Veterans relive memories of war at reopening of Cantigny's First Division Museum

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  • Video: First Division Museum opens

  • Dignitaries cut a red ribbon to officially reopen the First Division Museum on the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton on Saturday. The museum had been closed since Veterans Day for an $8.5 million project to renovate exhibits and repair infrastructure. Luci Creative, a Lincolnwood design firm, was hired for the project.

      Dignitaries cut a red ribbon to officially reopen the First Division Museum on the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton on Saturday. The museum had been closed since Veterans Day for an $8.5 million project to renovate exhibits and repair infrastructure. Luci Creative, a Lincolnwood design firm, was hired for the project.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Richard Avery of Lisle, a World War II veteran who served in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, is recognized at a ceremony for the reopening of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

      Richard Avery of Lisle, a World War II veteran who served in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, is recognized at a ceremony for the reopening of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Jack Metcalf, who lives in Mount Prospect, attends the reopening of the First Division Museum in Wheaton on Saturday.

      Jack Metcalf, who lives in Mount Prospect, attends the reopening of the First Division Museum in Wheaton on Saturday.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Michigan veteran Chris Stone visits a display that plays a video interview he gave for the "Duty First" gallery.

      Michigan veteran Chris Stone visits a display that plays a video interview he gave for the "Duty First" gallery.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Thomas McGinnis tours the newly renovated First Division Museum. McGinnis's son, Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, was killed in action in Iraq. The McGinnis family donated his Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration for an individual, to the museum.

      Thomas McGinnis tours the newly renovated First Division Museum. McGinnis's son, Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, was killed in action in Iraq. The McGinnis family donated his Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration for an individual, to the museum.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • "It's amazing," Thomas McGinnis said of the newly remodeled First Division Museum. His son, Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, was killed in Iraq in 2006.

      "It's amazing," Thomas McGinnis said of the newly remodeled First Division Museum. His son, Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, was killed in Iraq in 2006.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • The First Division Museum has reopened after the first major renovation to the building since it opened at its current site on the south side of the Cantigny Park campus in 1992.

      The First Division Museum has reopened after the first major renovation to the building since it opened at its current site on the south side of the Cantigny Park campus in 1992.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • The new "Duty First" gallery focuses on five missions: Deterrence, peacekeeping, battle, counterinsurgency and military assistance.

      The new "Duty First" gallery focuses on five missions: Deterrence, peacekeeping, battle, counterinsurgency and military assistance.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

Charlie Lewellen had a reputation as a pack rat in Vietnam.

After raids and battles, he collected war souvenirs from both sides of the conflict. About a year and a half ago, the Army veteran decided to donate his impressive collection -- about 187 pounds of it -- to a Wheaton military museum to "give people a chance to see what life was like in Vietnam."

On Saturday afternoon, Lewellen gave an audience a chance to see the era through his eyes at the reopening of the First Division Museum after extensive renovations.

The Texas man took his position as a storyteller in a Vietnam War exhibit that now displays some of his artifacts. With a strong command of dates and places, the 78-year-old showed visitors the flight suit, gloves and helmet he wore piloting armed helicopters, also called gunships, over South Vietnam.

"It brings back a lot of memories," he said.

On the grounds of Cantigny Park, the museum honors the memories of veterans in the Army's 1st Infantry Division. Display panels and videos quote them in their own words describing the emotional and physical wounds of war and their pride in a storied division that's celebrating its centennial this year.

James Van Thach, a veteran of the Iraq War, meets Romayne McGinnis, left, during the reopening of the First Division Museum in Wheaton Saturday.
  James Van Thach, a veteran of the Iraq War, meets Romayne McGinnis, left, during the reopening of the First Division Museum in Wheaton Saturday. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer

James Van Thach, a retired army captain from Florida, returned to the museum Saturday to see the unveiling of a video interview he gave for "Duty First," a new gallery that focuses on the division's missions around the world in the years after Vietnam.

In the video, Van Thach details the day he suffered a traumatic brain injury during a rocket attack in Iraq a decade ago. He came home depressed, mentally tired and suicidal.

But museum visitors watching his interview also will hear how he copes by helping fellow veterans in crisis as a suicide prevention counselor.

"I'm alive for some reason," Van Thach said. "I've found a reason why I'm alive."

Their stories build empathy in civilians who "are the beneficiaries of this selfless service," said Paul Herbert, the museum's executive director and a retired Army colonel.

"As citizens of this great republic, we are responsible for their welfare when they serve, and we are responsible to welcome them back into our communities as veterans when they come home," Herbert said.

A 21-gun salute honored the centennial of the Army's 1st Infantry Division and the 13,500 soldiers who have died over its history.
  A 21-gun salute honored the centennial of the Army's 1st Infantry Division and the 13,500 soldiers who have died over its history. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer

The museum had been closed since Veterans Day for the renovations designed by Luci Creative, a Lincolnwood firm. Before the reopening, a 21-gun salute recognized the 13,500 soldiers who have died over the 100 years of the division organized in 1917 during World War I.

Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, 19, was killed in Iraq in 2006. His Medal of Honor, awarded two years after his death, is now displayed in the "Duty First" gallery at the museum.
  Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis, 19, was killed in Iraq in 2006. His Medal of Honor, awarded two years after his death, is now displayed in the "Duty First" gallery at the museum. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer

"We prosper because these soldiers served, because they sacrificed, because many of them were grievously injured, because 13,500 of them died," Herbert told the gathering at the ceremony.

The division, based in Fort Riley, Kansas, observed the centennial in June. But museum officials decided to mark the milestone and the unveiling Saturday so the division's commanding general and soldiers -- who recently returned home from their deployment to Iraq -- could attend. The division headquarters was supporting Iraqi operations in the campaign to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State terrorist group.

Major Gen. Joseph Martin recognized the museum for its "absolutely accurate" and up-to-date record of the "Big Red One."

"There's an organization here that is committed to the legacy of this great division's history," Martin said.

Wearing virtual reality headsets, museum visitors are immersed in a mock raid in Afghanistan.
  Wearing virtual reality headsets, museum visitors are immersed in a mock raid in Afghanistan. - Daniel White | Staff Photographer

In the "Duty First" gallery, he stepped inside a replica Bradley Fighting Vehicle with videos that simulate what it was like to travel across the Iraqi desert during a battle of the Gulf War.

"For a moment, I was back in Desert Storm," Martin said.

Lewellen was back in Vietnam in an exhibit that recreates the country's dense jungles.

"This is as close as you can get," he said.

Standing near his artifacts, Lewellen thought back to the memories that still haunt him, remembering Willis W. Weber, the first soldier in his battalion who was killed.

"When you lose a person, a little bit of you dies," he said.

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