MILITARY MEMORIES

By Tammy Keith Published April 15, 2012 at 2:29 a.m.
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— The ghosts of wars seem to linger among the musty military uniforms, the combat boots that trudged over foreign soil and the handwritten love letter from a soldier in Korea.

These pieces of history and stories to go with them are being gathered in a historic home on College Street in Vilonia to create the Museum of Veterans and Military History.

“Most people working on this have some love of military history,” said Linda Hicks, president of the museum board.

Linda and her husband, Paul, a Vietnam War Air Force veteran, live in Conway.

“It all started because we wanted to do something special for Vilonia,” she said. Linda, a freelance writer, covers public meetings and events in Vilonia and said residents have welcomed her.

“We have many veterans and retired veterans living here, so what more appropriate than a veterans museum?” she said.

The Museum Brigade, the working arm of the museum, comprises about 40 people, Linda said, including some from Vilonia, Conway, Jacksonville, Searcy, Higginson and Morrilton.

The first person Linda asked to help with the museum was Sue Gallahar of Vilonia.

“Sue is high profile in the community. I knew Sue is a bulldozer,” Linda said, and Sue laughed.

“I knew veterans are dear to her heart,” Linda added.

Sue, who serves as the fund raising chairwoman, said her father was in the Marines and trained war dogs during World War II, and two brothers served in Vietnam.

One unique aspect of the museum is that veterans of each war represented have donated some of the items and “staged” the display areas.

“We have a spot for Vietnam, Iraq, Desert Storm, Afghanistan - the more high profile conflicts,” Linda said.

A backpack from World War I sits on a shelf, and framed photographs from the era hang on the wall. More-recent items include soft-drink cans and candy packages from Iraq.

Paul pointed to a photograph, published in Newsweek, that shows him loading 500-pound bombs onto a Coleman truck.

An antique glass case holds other artifacts, many of which were donated by Steve Hillman of Morrilton, another Vietnam veteran who is helping with the museum.

“He has been working nonstop,” Sue said of Hillman.

Paul described many of the items in the case.

“These came off Viet Cong prisoners,” he said, pointing out belt buckles.

A flag displayed in the case is from a Viet Cong camp, and a row of Hillman’s medals lie on the top shelf.

“This is what we ate, the old C-rations,” Paul said.

He pointed out a signal flare and a Viet Cong’s pith helmet.

He said he was in Vietnam “too long,” from 1967-70.

A painting hanging above his head brought back a memory.

“We were hauling munitions, and we had sniper fire,” he said. “We ran them into this house, which turned out to be a weapons cache in the house. Snipers were coming out of that firing at the convoys. We took care of them and burned the house. That’s what you had to do. I liked the painting, so I took it.”

He mailed the painting to his wife.

Linda said the board’s goal for the museum is to have as many veterans as possible on hand to tell their stories when the museum opens.

The museum won’t officially open until November, but a sneak peek for the community is planned near Memorial Day in May. The museum will be open May 15-20, then will close so more work can be done.

Linda said many of the veterans involved tell her “what they’ve got to have” to make their area authentic, and she tries to find it.

She ordered Missing in Action dog tags from eBay, and they hang from the ceiling in one room.

“I do a lot of research,” Linda said. “Most of this we bought out of our own pocket.

“We’re wanting people to donate more.”

It can be anything military related, not just war-related, she emphasized.

Southwestern Energy donated $1,000 to the museum to purchase mannequins to display uniforms, and Vilonia Mayor James Firestone paid for windows to be replaced, Linda said. A church paid for and built a wheelchair ramp, and Vilonia Junior Hig h School students are volunteering to help with displays. A veteran paid the utility bill for a month.

Linda said the home that will house the museum is thought to have been built in the late 1830s. Sue said it was a girls dormitory for Arkansas Holiness College, which stopped having classes in 1930. She said the house may have served as an orphanage and a girls school for a while, too.

Last year’s deadly tornado in April damaged the house.

“When we got over here, it almost had no windows, the ceiling was down, and it was the biggest mess,” Sue said.

The museum pays $10 a month to the group that owns the house, Centark Investments, which includes Ralph and Sherri Lachowsky and Johnnie and Kelli Wells, all of Conway, and Stanley Gordon Jr. and his wife, Melanie, of Vilonia.

The museum board’s wish list includes a flag pole and American flag for the grounds, more mannequins and paint for the peeling, wooden exterior of the house.

As long as they’re wishing, the women said, they’d like some military equipment to display on the grounds.

“My Uncle Harold drove a tank in World War II, so I want a tank,” Sue said.

“My dad was a gunner in World War II, so I’d like a big plane,” Linda added.

For more information or to make a donation to the museum, call Linda at (501) 796-8181 or Sue at (501) 733-0461.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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