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

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 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. Daniel White/

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. Daniel White/

"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. Daniel White/

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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