Telling the Army’s story, one Soldier at a time

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live
An M46 Korean War tiger tank sits on display at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center's Army Heritage Trail in Carlisle, Pa. The trail stretches one mile and contains displays from the American Revolution through Operation Enduring Freedom. (DOD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Piper)

An M46 Korean War tiger tank sits on display at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center’s Army Heritage Trail in Carlisle, Pa. The trail stretches one mile and contains displays from the American Revolution through Operation Enduring Freedom. (DOD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Piper)

You can see it from the highway, yellow and black stripes glowing in the sun, glaring at you with beady eyes and snarling teeth. It stares down approaching vehicles from its perch atop a grassy hill, drivers realizing as they pass: That’s a tank!

An M46 Korean War tiger tank, to be specific. The tank is a macro exhibit along the mile-long Army Heritage Trail at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pa. Open to the public, the center’s 55-acre campus is nestled between a golf course and I-81, with free parking and admission to the research facility, museum and all events.

“The concept (of the center) is that we are the Army’s archive, and we have … photos, audio-visual, oral history, veterans surveys, documents and other materials, classified and unclassified, that are a wealth of information for people looking into the history of the Army,” Col. Matthew Q. Dawson, director of the Army Heritage and Education Center, said.

The center is made up of four major components: the Military History Institute, Army Heritage Museum, Historical Services Division and the Digital Archives Division. Everyone, from professional writers and historians to students and interested members of the public, can use the center’s archives, Dawson added.

Conservation

A large part of AHEC’s mission is preserving history through artifacts, photographs and paper documents. That preservation begins in the conservation laboratory, part of the collections management branch of the Military History Institute, which is responsible for preservation and maintenance of paper and artifacts. Their job is to make sure AHEC is using the best possible preservation techniques, Dawson explained.

Large blue and yellow hoses dangle from the ceiling, while steel and plastic suction tables with fixed-location fume hoods dot the floor. The hoses provide a mobile version of a fume hood, Jordan Ferraro, paper conservationist, explained, and allow Ferraro and other conservationists to work from anywhere in the lab.

“Most of what I’m going to do in here is binding and dis-binding books, doing small repairs on paper. If something’s torn, I’m just going to use my organic paste — wheat starch paste, or something — to fix that tear so people can keep using the book. We’re going to flatten out rolled panoramic photos and rolled documents so they can be viewed, things like that,” she said.

Conservationists at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center clean and restore artifacts so they can either be added to a display or stored for future reference. (DOD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Piper)

Conservationists at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center clean and restore artifacts so they can either be added to a display or stored for future reference. (DOD photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Piper)

Sometimes paper items that enter the lab have been stored in basements or attics before arriving, and harbor mold. Ferraro said there is a whole freezer full of moldy material to treat and then restore in such a way that the mold won’t grow back.

“There’s a lot of waiting in the process of paper conservation,” she said. Ferraro works several projects at once, doing one step, such as gluing a page into binding, and then moving on to another project while the glue dries.

Ferraro is also helping with the backlog of objects that need to be cleaned, and spent three weeks picking corrosion out of a sword handle. Once the objects and paper have been restored or cleaned, they are assessed for stability and then placed in an exhibit or stored in specialized cabinets or open shelving.

The storage bays at the conservation facility house the majority of the 65,000 pieces in AHEC’s collection, curator Kaleb Dissinger said. “In here, we hold (and) store three-dimensional artifacts, and two-dimensional if we’re talking art. So, cloth, accouterments, some weapons — ordnance, edged weapons, that kind of thing,” he explained. 

For example, the facility houses an 1870s guidon flag from the Edward Sill Godfrey Collection, a hat that belonged to Gen. William T. Sherman, a painting of the battle of Hurtgen Forest, 1st Calvary Division patch prototypes, and a piece of shrapnel and DVD player from a Soldier who served in Iraq.

“We have one current operations case … that’s devoted to Spc. Alex Aguilar. He was a sniper in the 155th Brigade Combat Team,” Dissinger said. “We have a number of his pieces up there, mostly uniform pieces, but we have much more in his collection. Two things I pulled out: one being a piece of shrapnel that was from an IED that exploded against his line of Humvees on March 1, I believe of 2005.” The explosion killed a friend of Aguilar’s and he kept the shrapnel as a memento.

“Every Soldier over there is going to have a piece of technology that they use for their downtime. We wanted to show that we not only collect the ‘wow’ stuff (such as) Medals of Honor from major officers, we also collect materials that got the Soldier through their service. As part of the Aguilar Collection, we actually have a number of Slim Jims, beef sticks, that he held on to, that were just in his coat or in his gear, that came in with the collection,” Dissinger said.

Dissinger is currently in the middle of a massive rehousing project. He and his team are selecting similar pieces and organizing them chronologically in a central location. For example, uniform jackets that can be hung up were pulled from their boxes and placed on padded hangers, and then organized by the era and jacket type.

The Army Experience

The center has two major exhibit spaces: The Soldier Experience Gallery in the AHEC Visitor’s Center and the Army Heritage Trail. The trail and gallery have interactive displays covering many conflicts, from the Spanish-American War through current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The Army Heritage and Education Center is where the U.S. Army keeps the Soldiers’ history,” gallery guide Karl Warner explained. “There are other places in the Army that keep other pieces of history, but the AHEC is really a clearing house for the history. We tell the story one Soldier at a time. That’s our motto, that’s really what we’re passionate about.”

At the start of the gallery, visitors are given a dog tag related to one of six Soldiers from multiple conflicts who are featured in the gallery. Guides encourage them to follow their Soldier’s story throughout the displays, learning about their life in combat. One of the most popular displays is the Parachute Experience, where guests strap into a chair with mock parachute controls. On the floor beneath them is a projection of a World War II parachute drop, which the visitor navigates using faux pulleys.

Another popular display is the Korean War bunker, which simulates an American bunker being overrun by Chinese forces in the dead of night. Visitors duck into a curtained alcove and are immersed in the sights and sounds of combat — though the display is not graphic, AHEC employees warn it can be a little scary.

“Just a few days ago, we had an entire company of Soldiers come through,” Warner said. “We did a training day for them, we talked to them all about where they came from, what Soldiers like them were doing during the Civil War, what Soldiers like them were doing during Vietnam and even Iraq. We look at them and tell them, ‘Hey, some day your material is going to be history. We want your stuff here at the AHEC.’”

Warner explained that the way to teach Soldiers, the public and even scholars about Army history is to take the history of Soldiers, preserve it, present it and make it available to others.

“Suppose 150 years from now someone needs to learn about what you’re doing as a Soldier,” he said. “Well, we’re going to need your information to be able to train them. Who knows whether what you do, the mistakes you make today, or the things you do right today, might save a Soldier’s life 10 years from now, 50 years from now, 150 years from now. You never know.”

Outside on the heritage trail sit vehicles like the Korean War tiger tank and a Vietnam-era UH-1 helicopter, as well as macro exhibits that visitors can explore first hand: A Revolutionary War era redoubt (earthen fortification), Vietnam firebase, current operations-style checkpoint made with HESCO barriers, and a World War I trench tempt visitors off the trail and into history. The exhibits were built referencing Soldiers’ photos, memoirs and sketches housed at AHEC.

Some exhibits may even look familiar: A Vietnam-era attack helicopter on display on the Army Heritage Trail was actually recognized by a retired Soldier.

“We got the helicopter from Indiantown Gap about an hour north, and we had it on display before we put it out there, we had it right up by the front door. And this guy happened to drive along the road: ‘That looks like one of the helicopters I flew in Vietnam.’ He walks up and looks at the tail number. ‘That is the helicopter I flew in Vietnam.’ So then he walked up and he was like ‘I’ve got all kinds of stuff. Are you guys interested?’”

The helicopter pilot, Joe Newsome, proceeded to donate a collection of photo albums and slides from his time in Vietnam that are currently being digitized.

Archives

In addition to the many artifacts on display and in storage, AHEC is home to an enormous archival library, containing military publications and records, student papers, Atomic bomb hand receiptaudio recordings, memoirs and rare books, including a Chinese drill manual from the late 1700s or early 1800s.

The archives also hold veterans’ surveys and manuscript collections unique to the AHEC library. “In my opinion, that’s kind of why we are here, is to collect the cultural history that the Army doesn’t officially keep,” archivist Shannon Schwaller said. The hand receipt for the Hiroshima atomic bomb is among the documents in the collection, along with eerie pictures from the Bikini Atoll nuclear testing site.

“We just recently, last year, created a little cell to do outreach” by soliciting projects and letting the Army know the archive was at it’s disposal, Conrad Crane, chief of historical services, said. The archive provided the Army with summaries and packets of historical documents on subjects like sexual harassment, and how to maintain the force during a period of reduced resources.

“Bottom line is that we are trying to do a lot more to provide the historical background on what’s going on today in current studies. The essence of it is that the problems the Army is facing today are not new problems. We have all the old solutions we’ve tried that people can refer to,” Crane explained.

The archive also has an extensive collection of photographs, which is in the process of being preserved by the Digital Archives Division.

Gus Keilers and his team scan in the old photos and insert metadata into the file to make it searchable. They have digitized almost 16,000 photos to date.

Whether it’s the green notebook a Soldier has been maintaining during deployment, a uniform or a memoir, the Army Heritage and Education Center wants it.

“Our primary mission is to tell the Army’s story one Soldier at a time. To be able to do that we have to have the material to present in the first place,” Warner said. “Everything that every Soldier does is history, whether you think so or not. What you’re doing now might be something that saves someone’s life later on or proves someone’s career later on, or makes the Army a better place.

“Whatever you have as a Soldier is a part of history,” Warner said, “And it goes along with all the other materials you have to form (a) Soldier’s story.”

Editor’s note: To donate, Soldiers and families can go directly to the visitor’s center at AHEC or visit www.usahec.org to be put in contact with the registrar.