NEW YORK -- When the National Museum of the United States Army opens to the public outside Washington, D.C. in 2020; six New York Army National Guard Soldiers will be a permanent part of it.
The six men who serve at the New York National Guard Headquarters outside Albany and the 24th Civil Support Team at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, are models for six of 63 life-sized Soldier figures that will bring exhibits in the museum to life.
Studio EIS (pronounced ice), the Brooklyn company that specializes in making these museum exhibit figures, would normally hire actors or professional models as templates for figures, said Paul Morando, the chief of exhibits for the museum.
But real Soldiers are better, he said.
"Having real Soldiers gives the figures a level of authenticity to the scene," he said. "They know where their hands should be on the weapons. They know how far apart their feet should be when they are standing. They know how to carry their equipment."
Actual Soldiers can also share some insights with the people making the figures, Morando added.
The museum is under construction at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The Army Historical Foundation is leading a $200 million dollar campaign and constructing the 185,000 square-foot building through private donations. The Army is providing the 84-acre site, constructing the roads and infrastructure, and the interior exhibit elements that transform a building into a museum.
The museum will tell the story of over 240 years of Army history through stories of American Soldiers.
The figures of the six New York National Guard Solders -- Maj. Robert Freed, Chaplain (Maj.) James Kim, Capt. Kevin Vilardo, 2nd Lt. Sam Gerdt, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Morrison, and Sgt. 1st Class Nick Archibald--will populate two exhibits from two different eras.
Vilardo, Gerdt, and Archibald will portray Soldiers who landed in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The figure modeled by Archibald, an assistant inspector general at New York National Guard headquarters, will be climbing down a cargo net slung over the side of a model ship into a 36-foot long landing craft known as a "Higgins boat."
The boats took their name from Andrew Higgins, a Louisiana boat-builder who designed the plywood-sided boats, which delivered Soldiers directly to the beach.
Vilardo, the commander of A Troop, 101st Cavalry, who also works in the Army National Guard operations section, was the model for a combat photographer. His figure will be in the boat taking pictures of the action.
Gerdt, a survey section leader in the 24th Civil Support Team, modeled a Soldier standing in the boat gazing toward the beach.
The landing craft is so big that it, and three other macro artifacts, were pre-positioned in their space within the museum in 2017 - the museum is being built around them.
Kim, Morrison and Freed modeled for figures that will be in an Afghanistan tableau. They will portray Soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment on patrol in 2014, each Soldier depicting a different responsibility on a typical combat mission.
The figure based on Morrison, the medic for the 24th CST, will be holding an M4 and getting ready to go in first.
Freed, the executive officer of the 24th CST, modeled a platoon leader talking on the radio.
Kim, the chaplain for the 42nd Division, was the model for a Soldier operating a remote control for a MARCbot, which is used to inspect suspicious objects.
The process of turning a Soldier into a life-sized figure starts by posing the Soldier in the position called for in the tableau and taking lots of photos. This allows the artists to observe how the person looks and record it.
When Archibald showed up at the Studio EIS facility they put him to work climbing a cargo net like Soldiers used to board landing craft during World War II.
"They were taking pictures of me actually climbing a net with a backpack on and a huge model rifle over my shoulder," he recalled. "That was uncomfortable because I was actually on a net hanging off this wall."
The Studio EIS experts take pictures of the model from every angle and take measurements as well, Morando explained.
Vilardo, who posed crammed into a mock landing craft corner with a camera up to his eyes, said the photography portion of this process was the most unnerving part for him.
"I'm not one to like my picture being taken and to have really close photography of your face and hands was a new experience," he said.
Next, a model of the individuals face is made. A special silicone based material is used for the cast. The model's nostrils are kept clear so the subject can breathe.
The Soldiers were told what their character was supposed to be doing and thinking and asked to make the appropriate facial gestures.
Gerdt was told to stare into space and think about not seeing his family for two years.
"I had to hold my facial expression for about 15 minutes while they did that," he said.
Because his character was talking on the radio, he had to hold his mouth open and some of the casting compound got inside, Freed said.
"It was a bit nerve wracking, "Freed recalled. " They pour the silicon liquid over your entire face and you have these two breathing holes. Your hearing is limited. It is a bit jarring."
The material also warmed up.
"It was like a spa experience," Kim joked. "They had me sit with one of those barber covers on. I had to be still with my head tilted back."
The material got so warm that he started sweating, Archibald said. "As they did the upper portion (of his body) I got pretty toasty in there," he said.
Once their facial casts were done the Studio EIS experts cast the rest of their body. The Soldiers put on tight shorts and stockings with Vaseline smeared over body parts and posed in the positions needed.
Kim was asked to crouch and hold a controller in his hand. When he got up to move his legs were frozen, he said. "It was four hours and a lot of stillness," Kim said.
Archibald was positioned on blocks so that his body looked like it was climbing and they used this small little stool supporting my butt." He also had to clench his hand around rods to look like he was gripping a rope.
Vilardo jammed himself into a plywood cutout so it looked like he was stabilizing himself on a boat. Morrison held an M-4 at the ready as if he were ready to lead a stack of Soldiers into a room.
The six New York National Guardsmen and four other Soldiers visited the Brooklyn studio during the first two weeks of November.
They were the last Soldiers to be turned into figures, Morando said.
Four Active Duty Soldiers also posed during the process; Chaplain (Major) Bruce Duty, Staff Sgt. Dereek Martinez, Sgt. 1st Class Kent Bumpass, and Sgt. Armando Hernandez.
Next the artists will sculpt sections into a complete figure, dress and accessorize, and paint precise details on the face and skin; crafting it to humanistic and historical perfection. These lifelike Soldier figures will help visitors understand what it looked like on D-Day or during a combat mission in Afghanistan, Morando said.
The New York Soldiers got their chance to be part of the new, state of the art museum because of Justin Batt, the director of the Harbor Defense Museum at Fort Hamilton.
He and Morando had worked together before, Batt said.
Morando needed Soldiers to pose and wanted to use Soldiers from the New York City area to keep down costs. So he turned to Batt to help find ten people.
Batt, in turn, reached out to Freed to ask for help in finding Guard Soldiers.
The museum was looking for Soldiers with certain looks, heights, and in some cases race, Freed said.
For the D-Day scene they needed Soldiers of certain height and weight who would look like Soldiers from the 1940s. The design for the Afghanistan scene included an Asian American and African-American Soldier, Freed said.
He recruited Kim, a Korean-American, as the Asian American and Morrison as the African-American Soldier. Vilardo, Archibald and Gerdt are lean and looked more like an American of the 1940s.
The six New York Guardsmen that Freed recruited were perfect, Batt said. Not only did they look the part but also they all have tremendous military records, he added.
Being part of the National Museum of the United States Army is an honor, the Soldiers said.
While their names won't be acknowledged on the exhibits, it will be great to know they are part of telling the Army story, they all agreed.
He was impressed to find out how much work goes into creating an exhibit and the care the museum staff is taking to get it right, Freed said.
"I have a newfound appreciation of the efforts the Army is making to preserve its history," he added.
"I think it is pretty cool that they would get Soldiers to model as Soldiers," Archibald said. "Part of it is an honor to be able to bring people down there and point at the exhibit and say that is actually me there."
"I feel privileged to have an opportunity to be part of a historic display, "Kim said. " To be immortalized and to be able to share that with generations of my family. It is a once in a life time opportunity."
"It's extremely cool. I feel honored to do it," Gerdt said, adding that he was looking forward to taking his newborn daughter to see the exhibit.
Vilardo, who has a seven-year old daughter, said she was pretty excited when he showed her photographs of him being turned into an exhibit figure.
"I told her it would be just like "Night at the Museum", he said referring to the Ben Stiller movie about museum exhibits coming to life, "and that we could go visit anytime."
"It is extremely humbling to know I am going to be part of Army history, "Morrison said. "I already thought I was part of the Army Story. Now I am going to be part of the story the public gets to see."
The National Museum of the United States Army is a joint effort between the U.S. Army and the non-profit organization, The Army Historical Foundation. The museum will serve as the capstone of the Army Museum Enterprise and provide the comprehensive portrayal of Army history and traditions. The Museum is expected to open in 2020 and admission will be free. www.thenmusa.org