The Army has broken ground on its first national museum to celebrate a history of service
The Marine Corps opened its newest one to great fanfare in Quantico, Virginia, in 2006. The Air Force has had once since around 1950 and the Navy opened one in 1963.
So now, it's the Army's turn to get with the times.
Senior officials with the service and supporters recently broke ground on a new National Army Museum to be housed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The museum will be free-of-charge to visitors, and is expected to open in 2019. Plans for the 185,000-square-foot facility include more than 15,000 pieces of art, 30,000 artifacts, documents and images.
It's the first of its kind for the Army.
"This museum will remind all of us what it means to be a soldier, what it means to serve with incredible sacrifice, with incredible pride," said Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley.
"And most importantly, this museum is a tribute to those 30 million soldiers who've worn this distinguished uniform ... and their loved ones who supported them," he said.
Milley, Army Sec. Eric K. Fanning, other Army leaders, donors, guests and Gold Star families attended the ceremony and groundbreaking at Fort Belvoir Sept. 14.
The Army's chief of staff said he believes the museum will offer visitors an experience that can't be found in history books or online, and that a visit to the museum will enhance for them what they might have learned in school about both the United States and its Army, as well as "the cost and the pain of the sacrifice of war, not in dollars, but in lives."
The National Army Museum, shown in this conceptual design, will be built at Fort Belvoir, Va., partly with funds from the Army Commemorative Coin Act signed by President Obama. (Photo from U.S. Army)
In the museum, Army weapons, uniforms, equipment, and even letters written by soldiers at war will help visitors better connect with their Army, Milley said.
The Army, Fanning said, is even older than the nation it defends, and their history has been intertwined now since the beginning.
"We've waited 241 years for this moment," Fanning said of the groundbreaking for the museum. "It's almost impossible to separate the Army's story from this nation's story. In so many ways, the history of the Army is the history of America."
From the Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has borne the greatest share of America's losses, Fanning said. Fully 85 percent of all Americans who have given their lives in defense of the United States and its interests have done so while serving in the U.S. Army.
Besides fighting the nation's wars, Fanning said, soldiers have also been pioneers for the United States. He cited as an example the efforts Army Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Army 2nd Lt. William Clark. Together, the two led a team to explore and map the Western United States -- an effort that came to be known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Another example of Army pioneering is the effort of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help build the nation's roads, railroads, canals and bridges, Fanning said.
In the 20th century, he said, it would be Army scientists that took America through new frontiers, such as aviation, creating solar cells and the launching of America's first satellite into space.
Fanning said he's reminded of the Army's history and pioneering every day by a framed piece of regimental colors in his office. Those colors, he said, are what remain of the standard carried in the Civil War by the 54th Massachusetts, the Army's first African-American regiment, he said.
That small piece of flag will be displayed in the National Army Museum, "joining thousands of artifacts that will help tell our shared story," Fanning said. "The museum will strengthen the bonds between America's soldiers and America's communities."
Retired Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, who now serves as the chairman of the Army Historical Foundation Board of Directors, said the museum is meant to "tell the comprehensive story of the Army history as it finally deserves to be told."
That story, he said, will include all components of the Army, and will also include the story of the Continental Army, which existed even before the birth of the United States.
The museum, he said, will be a "virtual museum, without walls, having connectivity with all of the Army museums."
Also significant, Sullivan said, is the museum's location. The site chosen at Fort Belvoir is less than 7 miles from Mount Vernon — the home of the Continental Army's first commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington.
Retired Gen. William W. Hartzog, vice chairman of the Army Historical Foundation Board of Directors, said one of the first things visitors will see when they enter the museum is a series of pictures and histories of individual soldiers.
"We are all about soldiers," Hartzog said.
During the groundbreaking ceremony, attendees were able to hear some of those stories for themselves.
Captain Jason Stumpf of the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for instance, took the stage to talk about his wife, 1st Lt. Ashley White-Stumpf.
"She was doing what she did for a greater good and she always believed this," he said. She was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.
"She only wanted to help and answer the call," he continued. "Ashley would be the first to stand in the entryway and say she's not the only one that answered the call. Many before and many after her will do the same thing."
White-Stumpf's story will be one of the many relayed to visitors to the new Army museum.
Another story that will be told at the museum is that of now-deceased Staff Sgt. Donald "Dutch" Hoffman, uncle to Brig. Gen. Charles N. Pede, who now serves as the assistant judge advocate general for Military Law and Operations.
Pede said his uncle got the name "Dutch" because he'd been a tough kid growing up on the streets of Erie, Pennsylvania, and was always in trouble or "in Dutch."
Dutch enlisted at age 17, Pede said, and soon found himself in Korea. During his first firefight, Pede relayed, Dutch had admitted to being scared. Shortly after, he attacked an enemy machine gun position by himself, rescuing wounded soldiers and carrying them to safety. He earned a Silver Star for his actions there.
He'd later be wounded in battle and left for dead, Pede continued. But a "miracle-working" Army doctor brought him back to life.
Finally, now-retired Brig. Gen. Leo Brooks Jr. spoke about his late father, retired Maj. Gen. Leo A. Brooks Sr. When Brooks the senior entered the Army in 1954, his journey was filled with challenges, the junior said, as the Army had only recently become desegregated.
Brooks senior had to earn the respect of others as a leader, his son said. That he became a leader was due to the sacrifices of others before him.
Brooks junior said he and his brother, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, who now serves as commander of U.S. Forces Korea, U.N. Command and Combined Forces Command, both looked to their father for guidance — and followed him into the Army.
We "naturally followed in his profession because we could see and feel the nobility of the Army's core values he instilled," Brooks junior said.
Today, the Army is the only military service without its own national museum. The National Museum of the United States Army, to be built on 80 acres of land at Fort Belvoir, will remedy that.