How museum's new exhibit reflects 'humanity of soldiers'
If you want to know something about soldiers, spend some time peering into a glass case near the exit of a new gallery at the First Division Museum in Wheaton.
Mounted on the wall is a collection of objects profound and practical, mundane and personal. None have individual labels.
But a purple baseball hat tells you one of the Big Red One soldiers is a Kansas State University Wildcats fan. A handmade memory bracelet tells you another lost a friend. A ticket stub tells you a soldier saw Led Zeppelin play a concert in Germany.
The display is loosely inspired by "The Things They Carried," a 1990 collection of short stories about men who fought in Vietnam.
Some of the items were stored with the museum's collection of artifacts and brought into public view after a nearly yearlong renovation of the museum at Cantigny Park. Curators now hope to continue to fill two cases with the things soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division carried into war and brought back home.
One will occupy the entrance of the "First in War" gallery that traces the division's combat missions from World War I through the Vietnam era. The other makes a lasting impression near the exit of the new "Duty First" gallery that highlights the division's legacy in the years after Vietnam.
"We want our visitors to understand the fundamental humanity of soldiers," Executive Director Paul Herbert said. "And we think these kind of personal talismans that soldiers either took with them to war or home from the war will resonate powerfully."
JD Kammes, the museum's programming and education director, donated a hat, watch, head space and timing gauge for a 50-caliber machine gun, along with a hatchet knife he carried with him in Iraq.
"Sometimes, if things were getting a little hectic, you kind of pulled that out a little bit, just a little bit, and people suddenly started paying attention really quick," said Kammes, who deployed in April 2003 as a tank gunner with troops that took the southern city of Kirkuk.
"For some reason, they were more scared of that than the rifle you carried."
Some of the items on display are more familiar to veterans and less so to civilians. A cigar in the case belonged to Major Terry Hawn, the commander of the 48th Military History Detachment, a little-known team that recorded what the division was doing during deployment to Iraq in 2010.
Hawn had cigars made for his unit and printed on the wrappers was the Latin phrase for "always irritated," their unofficial motto.
"Because of their duties, they were always moving around. They were always going out to different places to interview people," said Shane Keil, the museum's collections manager.
Civilians, though, can identify with the KSU baseball cap donated by Lon E. "Bert" Maggart, who commanded the division's 1st Brigade during Operation Desert Storm.
And that Zeppelin ticket? Fred Green saw the band when he served with the division's 33rd Field Artillery Battalion in Germany.
Herbert hopes that, through such connections, visitors come to understand "who our soldiers are" and their experiences in a 100-year-old division.
"Our fellow citizens, our family members, serve it," he said. "They're our soldiers."