VILONIA — About 1,500 people enjoyed a sneak peek of the Museum of Veterans and Military History last week during a four-day community preview.
The museum is closed again as preparations continue for the facility’s official opening on Veterans Day.
"We were very pleased with the turnout," Sue Gallahar, vice president of the museum’s board, said. "There were at least 1,000 kids."
The museum is located in a house that served as a dormitory for female students attending a Christian college in the early 1920s. It needs more paint and additional parking lot work, and Gallahar said a lot of items have yet to bed added to the museum collection.
Every branch of service is represented: Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy and Coast Guard. Exhibits denote military battles such as the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the more recent Middle Eastern engagements like Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the war in Afghanistan.
Some of the exhibits have been staged by people still serving their country. A uniform worn in Iraq is on one mannequin. Tech Sgt. Paul Shumway of Little Rock Air Force Base donated the uniform along with other items. He attended the opening Saturday and Sunday to answer questions.
Kevin Taylor, a retired Air Force veteran, donated two uniforms. His brother, Travis Taylor, donated a uniform and equipment. He’s a member of the military security patrol at the air base.
Students from primary to high school age toured the museum. Vilonia Junior High School ninth-grade art students and teacher Greg Hogan were the first to tour. The students spent classroom time from December until early May creating murals and building custom mannequins and wanted to see their work on display. The students also crafted a Huey helicopter for the LZ Green Room, which is dedicated to Vietnam veterans.
The students were pleased, Hogan said.
"They worked hard on it and we are glad to be a part of this project," he said.
Steve Hillman and Paul Hicks built other displays, such as a replica prisoner of war cage. Bill Beavers, technology director for the Vilonia School District, and Air Force Tech Sgt. Ben Comer assisted with sounds and lighting in the room. The display simulates a scene where soldiers are attempting to rescue a soldier capured by enemy combatant and there are casualties, according to the veterans. Exiting the room, there is a mural of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. It was painted by ninth-grader Leighann Bonnema, and Gallahar said many veterans are impressed with Bonnema’s work.
Veterans milled and shared their stories during the opening. Harden Kemper of Vilonia, a Marine in World War II, served alongside his twin brother, Harvey, for three years. Their mother died and they were sent back to the U.S. Afterwards, they were split up for the remainder of their duty.
Touring the World War exhibit, Kemper talked about being in the military when Pearl Harbor was bombed. "Oh, yeah, I remember it well," he said.
Kacy and Patricia Craver of Conway are retired veterans. At 51, she was the oldest from Colorado to be activated for Desert Storm duty. She was attached to the Colorado National Guard in the 217th Medical Battalion.
A "typo," Kacy Craver said, kept his unit from being activated. A member of the 19th Special Forces, he talked about his wife, son and future daughter-in-law serving while he was left behind to "cut the grass."
Several veterans from Gunter’s Veterans Home in Vilonia visited. Vietnam vet Charles Kies talked briefly about his Navy experience. The self-described "river rat" hauled munitions. He said he stepped on a land mine and was injured. He made more than one trip through LZ Green. He said the museum’s sounds and sights brought back memories, some "not too good."
A few vets donated items. Vietnam veteran Dave Spencer of Higginson presented a framed letter he received last year that was addressed to his late wife but was recognizing his death. Spencer was wounded twice in Vietnam.
"I guess I’m dead," Spencer joked. "I probably shouldn’t be here. Thought I would give this so everyone can get as big a kick out of it as I did."
He also donated a shredded belt.
One son brought in his father’s World War II uniform. His father was a member of the "Mighty 8th," a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator.