College Station, Texas - History comes alive in the central Texas town thanks to the efforts the Museum of the American GI, a non-profit organization that has been educating the public for two decades. Visitors enjoyed static and living historical displays, operational military hardware, battle reenactments throughout the three-day Living History Weekend, held March 23-25.
"[Some] come for the excitement, as a twenty year Army veteran, I come to hear the stories. The individual stories is what honors the veterans" said Joe Tinner, a spectator.
The stories of the men and women who have served the military are everywhere at the Museum. The static displays show uniforms, posters, equipment, and vehicles, including helicopters and boats. The living displays are created by reeactors, volunteers who pay homage to veterans through stories and demonstrations.
"I heavily contemplated military service, but I didn't. I don't have many regrets, but that is one of them and I feel this is one small way I can give back a little to [those] guys that do," said Justin Ellington, head of the volunteer group and Armor Support Group for the museum. "As a society we tend to forget all the things the military does and has done for us and I believe that is an absolute crime to [the servicemen].
Many of the organization are prior-service veterans, employing their military experience into an educational opportunity for the community.
"My fangs came out when I came here and saw the tanks," said Paul D. Taylor, former 19E Armor Crewman and reenactor. "You can see people's eyes widen when they get inside the tank. It's all new to them," said Taylor. "I loved being a tanker and being a volunteer lets me share my passion with people who have never seen a tank in person."
"I really enjoy sharing the little known history," said Gordon Lentz portraying a British officer. Originally from Canada, Lentz has fallen in love with the American dream. "You can see so much in America. There are so many opportunities and are not available elsewhere. As a gas and oil worker, I've been in places around the world where wars have broken out and it was the soldiers who protected us, said Lentz. Playing a British officer brings me in and lets me share the experience of the [British] soldiers. We all have different stories to tell, the more you hear them the more the more you see they are all somehow connected. "This one lady told me that her father was a POW when the Japanese took Singapore and he spent three years in a POW camp. While speaking with her, I asked her to hold a 303 rifle and said, it's the type of rifle that your father would have had. She felt the heft of it and then looked at it for a while and then she started cry ... unbelievable," said Lentz.
Many visitors during the weekend had only seen these vehicles and equipment in movies and video games. The hands-on opportunities of the Living History Weekend took that exposure to the next level.
"So many of the kids are used to video games like World of Tanks, so they know about the equipment, but they really don't know about the people," said Leisha Mullins, co-founder and acting director of the American GI Museum. "What it was like to crew it. What it means to live in a trench. What it was like to go through a winter when your socks have gotten wet. So, by using the vehicles to draw them in, [they] start thinking about more than just the vehicles," said Mullens.
The museum maintains an extensive collection of working military weapons, tanks, vehicles and artillery pieces, which can be fired up and shown to the public. Visitors experienced the roar of the engines, smell the tank exhaust and feel the rumble of the ground beneath their feet as the tanks charge forward.
"We are very fortunate to have the Texas Vietnam Memorial exhibit," said Mullins. "3,417 dog tags, one for every single Texas soldier that was killed or missing in Vietnam. It's a tactile exhibit so the kids have touch and hold them. I always ask how many they think are there and they never come close. That is the first step in realizing the sacrifice in war and that people don't always come back home. That exhibit is also very powerful to a lot of adults. Many know an uncle or neighbor or somebody that was lost and they find the names. A lot of Vietnam veterans come in looking for their buddy's name. They find them and tell us, 'I knew him.' He was my friend and it's part of the catharsis for them."
The museum's mission is to preserve traditions of our military's past and to educate future generations. Each year, events like the Living History Weekend achieve that goal for the west Texas region.
"Sometimes when you tell one person's story," said Mullins, "you're telling everyone's story."