by Dr. Allen Dale Olson

A Small, Unique Museum Tells How

               Imagine you are a teacher (or a lawyer or a cashier or any other employee who likes your job) married to a military spouse. At dinner one evening, you are informed that your spouse just got orders to move overseas or across the country. What happens to you? You, of course, should go along, but what about your own career? Is it over? Can it continue in the new location? Not likely if overseas. Maybe, but not for certain, if to another state.

            Imagine you are a high school football player and the coach has just told you he is counting on you for your senior year, and you come home to a father telling that the family is moving to Germany next month.

Imagine you just finished first grade in your American school in Japan and your mother says the family is moving back to the “States.” Your first thought is that’s what a lot of your friends did, and you never saw them again.

Imagine you’re the mother of two toddlers living in a Filipino village and your husband has been summoned to the base because the Marcos government is falling and there may be civil conflict; you are told to stay indoors till further notice, and you hear planes overhead, see military convoys out the windows. Radio and television services have all but shut down.

Imagine yourself living on an American air base in Turkey, and you learn there is a coup underway to topple the government. Both the State and Defense Departments are ordering evacuations of Americans, some to Germany, some back to America, some to Spain. The military member may go on duty; the family is rushed away to an uncertain location without much time to pack or plan. Your personal effects and furnishings are left in Turkey.

Imagine a school principal calling you and your sister to the office where your mother and a high ranking officer are waiting to tell you your father’s plane just went down in Afghanistan and that he did not survive.

Imagine your only child coming home in a flag-draped coffin, the son you had nursed and comforted in your arms so long ago, and now you will never see him again.

Imagine you are a teen whose father or mother has just been deployed to a war zone where the family cannot go, and it’s up to you to help with the younger kids and household management for the next few months.

Imagine you and your mother and your siblings are out on a tarmac to welcome home your father, the one you haven’t seen for more than two years, and he comes to you in a wheelchair without the legs you tried to keep up with  back when he would run and play with you.

These are real life situations faced by members of America’s military families. A child of a soldier or airman, sailor or marine will pass through an average of five or six schools en route to graduation. A son or daughter will probably have lived in at least one foreign country by the third grade. Almost one-fourth of all military kids – “Brats” – enter first grade speaking a language other than English.

These compelling stories of heroism, courage, strength, and pride are collected and preserved by the Museum of the American Military Family (MAMF), the only museum in the country  completely dedicated to the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, spouses, and partners who have loved and supported a member of America’s armed forces.

MAMF was founded in 2011 by Dr. Circe Olson Woessner (daughter of the author) while her son was serving in Iraq and her husband had just retired from an Army career (during which he had also deployed to  Middle Eastern and  Haitian combat areas). The Woessners and their two sons had moved eighteen times during LTC Woessner’s service before settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Woessner was worried about her son in Iraq but noted that military wives and mothers are tough and brave and deserve recognition for their sacrifices and service. How about a museum, like those for specific battles, squadrons, ships, or military units. Not really. A few museums, like the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, have a small gallery about Army family life, but they are generally military branch specific. “I’ll start one,” she said.

For four years MAMF was an on-line presence, collecting documents, artifacts, photos, documents, and first-hand stories from around the world and from every war, including the American civil war. A handful of volunteer board members managed to sort and catalog and keep books and get tax-exempt status and register with the state public regulations committee and oversee the safe-keeping of everything in temporary facilities, including Woessner’s garage.

At the same time MAMF was also busy promoting and hosting documentary film programs, stage presentations, military ceremonies  in partnership with the  Albuquerque Cultural Services Department, the International Balloon Museum, the Explora Children’s Museum, and the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History while creating exhibits about military family and school life which traveled around the state, all funded by individual donations and an occasional grant. In the spring of 2016, MAMF became a full partner with the New Mexico National Guard Foundation’s initiative to create a Southwest Military Heritage Center in Santa Fe. MAMF recently created a permanent memorial to military families on the grounds of the National Guard Bataan Museum on Old Pecos Trail.

And in July, 2016, MAMF found a home in a historic house along Old Route 66 in the village of Tijeras, named for the intersection of two mountain passes used by traders and settlers for more than 2000 years. Some eight miles east of Albuquerque, Tijeras is at the southern end of the Turquoise Highway, a National Byway connecting the pass with Santa Fe, sixty miles north.

Authentic “Welcome Home” banners flank the entrance to a foyer exhibiting panels defining a military family, modeling a Vietnam war prison cell, displaying a “memorial” footlocker, and poignant panels describing “Coming Home,” “Re-Entry and Re-Integration,” and “Getting Help.” Other panels depict the “Pride” and “Identity” of military families as well as “Sacrifice,” “Loss,”  “Staying in Touch,” “Loss and Letting Go,” and “Waiting and Mourning.”

Pass the foyer into a living room of much-used furniture, a make-do kitchen, an ironing board at the ready to include the touch and smell of starch, family photos on the fireplace mantel, leather shoes and a shoeshine kit at hearth level, and shelves of photo albums, scrapbooks, and training manuals. One wall is a stack of shelves displaying objects, toys, souvenirs, publications, and fads relevant to various war eras – from WWI to the present. Ever see Barbie in combat boots?

Uniforms and stacks of tee-shirts tell the family history – Panama, Munich, Yokohama, El Paso, Fort Ord, the Pentagon, Fort Riley, Kirtland AFB, Okinawa, Guam, and dozens of other places. Coffee mugs tell a similar story – Berlin, Third Air Force, The Big Red One, and military units famous and obscure, schools on four continents and in nearly all the states.

Take two steps down into the library where there are more than 500 books and videos by and about military members and their families and a series of exhibit panels describing the history of the Defense Department schools for military children and the daily life they and their teachers lived in them. Archives contain hundreds of personal stories, many handwritten, of men and women, students, and relatives about memorable experiences while serving their country.

A postcard project allows visitors to sum up a special military-related experience in 90 words or less. Of the 500 or so displayed in binders, many contain powerful, insightful, and emotional messages.

The library houses Operation Footlocker, an initiative started  in the 1990s when a group of adult Brats who had once been students in a Defense Department school declared the footlocker their special icon, and created a traveling mobile museum — a footlocker being a small military trunk used by each family member for use in shipping essential belongings to their next assignment. MAMF now manages a program of sending footlockers around the country to Brats reunions and gatherings.  With some 15 million former students spread around the globe, reunions are common, and footlockers stuffed with letter jackets, prom programs, German teddy bears, report cards, student dog tags, expired military ID cards, school year books, and a host of other memorabilia are sent out to serve as center pieces and nostalgic conversations. Rules are: MAMF sends it to a reunion organizer who becomes responsible for returning it or sending it to its next destination having added at least one item to it.

The classroom is for hands-on activities, ranging from children’s art activities to serious adult programs such as transformational paper-making programs in which Veterans shred their combat uniforms, crush them into a pulp for making paper on which they can create art and find peace. Another set of exhibit panels illustrates perceptions of military life.

MAMF is a self-sustaining all volunteer organization with no paid staff. All of its programs are free to the public, and there are no admission fees to the museum. It survives on good will, donations, support from businesses, and occasional grants. It is staffed by volunteers and is open Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 to 6:00 or by appointment.

The Museum of the American Military Family is at 546B State Route 333 (Old Route 66), Tijeras, New Mexico  87059. Tel: (505) 504-6830.