By Mitch Meador, Fort Sill TribuneMarch 14, 2019
FORT SILL, Okla. (March 14, 2019) -- After 8.5 years as a Marine, 20 more as a Soldier, and 15 deployments, one wounded warrior has found his dream job as an exhibit specialist for the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum.
Having completed a three-year internship with the Air Defense Artillery Museum, retired Sgt. 1st Class James O'Leary was hired as a General Services employee Jan. 7. He's now part of the team quietly remaking what was formerly "The Warrior's Journey," an American Indian-themed gallery housed in one of the rough-and-tumble cavalry barracks from the early 1870s.
O'Leary was assigned to Fort Sill's Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) for surgeries and treatment upon returning from his final tour in Afghanistan. Injuries from previous deployments had finally caught up with him, including old IED blasts and a traumatic brain injury he suffered in a vehicle rollover.
Yes, his training kicked in and he braced his hands against the ceiling, but it wasn't his unit's vehicle and some things inside weren't strapped down the way they should have been.
"When I was doing my in-processing, there was one station I had to go to, and they asked me what my interests and my hobbies were, and I told them, 'I'm very interested in history, and I make military miniatures,' and I had some pictures with me," he said.
The WTU staff told him he would have to do some sort of job or go to school while he was there, because he was still receiving his government pay. Would he be interested in working at the museum?
"I said, 'Yeah! That would be great!' So I met with Mr. (Frank) Siltman, (head of the Directorate of Museums), and he had me come to the director's meeting. I met Scott Neel and Jon Bernstein and Gordon Blaker (curators of the three museums), and they discussed who needed help the most, and what I could possibly do and bring to the museum," O'Leary said.
At the time, the ADA Museum was shorthanded compared to the other museums.
"Jon Bernstein and I are both modelers, so there was that instant connection there. And he was like, 'Yeah! There are things you can help me with.' It turned into a federal internship program, because I wasn't just a Soldier going over there and watching the desk or sweeping floors. He was actually teaching me how to design exhibits, come up with the ideas, do the research for them, figure out what materials were needed, all the aspects of doing a single exhibit.
"The first exhibit I worked on was a Vietnam War Quad .50 (the M45 Quadmount consisting of four heavy-barrel .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns) displayed over at Snow Hall, in the Costello Room. It's a truck bed that we constructed out of plywood and metal pieces, because we couldn't get the actual truck in there. So we just made a mock-up. There are three mannequins, and we positioned them. A couple of them have some of my uniforms on them, because I'm big into Vietnam type of stuff.
"That was my first exhibit of a large scale. And it just got me hooked."
Bernstein and O'Leary worked on other exhibits and did some restoration to a Jaboschreck, the only one in existence. His sole contribution was to sandblast this German antiaircraft gun before it was sent in to be painted, but he was glad to learn the process of trying to restore a historical artifact.
Bernstein had O'Leary help him build the concept model for the ADA Training Support Facility that's now taking shape west of the Field Artillery Museum.
"It's changed quite a bit since the original one but I just felt honored that he thought enough of my abilities to help with that project," O'Leary said.
As an intern he also got to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes on in getting a museum built -- planning what an entire gallery will look like, where things are going to be, what the sizes and dimensions will be, sitting in on meetings with the architects and the Army Corps of Engineers, and so on.
Because O'Leary was still going through his medical boards when the Fort Sill WTU closed down in March 2016, he was sent to Fort Hood, Texas.
The Fort Sill Museum Directorate arranged for him to continue his internship at Hood's 1st Cavalry Division Museum.
There he learned different ways of doing things, using older tools. He still came back to Fort Sill occasionally to participate in living history events.
As a living history interpreter he's usually attired for the Vietnam era, explaining advances in uniform and equipment technology made as a result of lessons learned in Vietnam. He's been interested in the Vietnam War ever since he was 9 years old, because that's when his father started to talk about it a little. Charles O'Leary did two tours in Vietnam, and, like his son, he retired with the rank of sergeant first class.
James O'Leary emphasizes that the planning, design, resourcing, and production of an exhibit is a team effort, not the work of just one person. The museum's director, exhibit specialist, collections manager, museum technician, and archivist all play a role in establishing a story line, determining which artifacts will be on display and for how long.
They ensure the proper environmental controls are in place for artifact preservation while on display, and implement a rotation schedule for the artifacts so they have time to rest, which is part of the preservation process.
They also research the history behind the artifacts, search through the artifacts for photos, maps, and other items that can be utilized in the production of graphics for the exhibit, and engage in other activities that are part of the exhibit process.
O'Leary makes sure that everything involving the actual exhibit itself happens and the result is a professional and informative exhibit that is interesting to the public.
Another aspect of working at one of the museums here on Fort Sill is Soldier training.
"It is a major reason why we exist," O'Leary notes. "Through activities and presentations, we can educate Soldiers on various aspects of U.S. Army history, which develops a sense of pride in the Soldiers as well as an appreciation of what Soldiers before them had gone through that helped make the Army what it is today.
"In addition to Soldier training, we also present the Army's and Fort Sill's history to the general public in various ways ranging from visits to our museums, tours, living history events, and school programs."