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Historian on museum closure: History not going anywhere

Aug. 23, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Air Education and Training Command held a closing ceremony Aug. 15 for the Security Forces Museum. The museum will become part of an enlisted heritage and character development center expected to open in 2017.
Air Education and Training Command held a closing ceremony Aug. 15 for the Security Forces Museum. The museum will become part of an enlisted heritage and character development center expected to open in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Mark Velasquez)
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A plan to shutter the Security Forces Museum at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland — and reopen it as early as 2017 as part of a sprawling enlisted heritage and character development center — has left members of the Air Force’s largest career field feeling shafted.

A White House petition imploring Air Education and Training Command to rethink the decision crept toward 3,000 signatures Thursday. More than 5,100 joined a Save the Air Force Security Forces Museum Facebook group. And one retired command chief master sergeant who helped found the facility 35 years ago mailed his museum lifetime membership card to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in a show of indignation.

But AETC historian Gary Boyd says disgruntled security forces members have gotten the wrong message. Although the museum closed to the public Aug. 15, it will continue to open its doors for training and special group tours. This spring, a single interim facility will house the best exhibits from the Security Forces Museum and the Airman Heritage Museum, which has also closed.

The Air Force simply couldn’t afford to maintain both facilities, he said. Since 1998, museum staffing has dwindled from six to one, and funding for a temporary slot at the Security Forces Museum was scheduled to expire this month.

The planned, privately funded Enlisted Heritage and Character Development Center “will offer interactive, engaging exhibits that are inclusive and serve the entire Lackland community (including Security Forces) as well as the larger USAF and public,” Boyd wrote in an email.

But dozens of former security forces members who have lamented the closing on social media say there is more to their ire than the closing.

The White House petition calls the closure “a sign of disrespect toward the Air Police, Security Police [and] Security Forces career field and those veterans who strive to preserve our history through personal donations.”

It accuses AETC, which recently took over the museums from the 37th Training Wing, of failing to consult with stakeholders “before marginalizing and boxing up our history.”

Those stakeholders include the Security Forces Museum Foundation, which raises money for the facility, the Air Force Security Forces Association and security forces leadership, said former Tech. Sgt. Greg Autry, creator of the Facebook page aimed at stopping the closing.

“We were left out of the entire process,” Autry said. “Our guys are feeling very betrayed, for lack of a better word.”

Word of the closing began trickling out on social media just two weeks before the closure, Autry said, and piecemeal updates left more questions than answers.

Also left in the dark: the family of Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson, the first female airman killed in the line of duty in Iraq, who is memorialized on the museum’s Hall of Honor.

Jacobson’s grandmother, Sondra Millman, said she learned the museum had closed from someone who tried, unsuccessfully, to visit after Aug. 15.

“I got this news and I was extremely upset, not just for my daughter but for all the history that goes in the museum,” Millman said. She learned from a reporter that the exhibits — which included Jacobson’s personal items she’d donated — were not going in storage as has been stated on social media.

Boyd insisted a foundation representative was present at a June meeting when plans for the consolidation were first announced. Ultimately, it was an Air Force decision, since both the museum and its contents belong to the service.

Members of the board of trustees for the museum foundation did not respond to multiple Air Force Times interview requests. In an email to Air Force Times Aug. 23, board president Carl DeNisio, a retired colonel, said it has not made a statement on the closure “because it does not have operational standing in the matter.”

On its Facebook page, the board said it was excluded from the decision process that led to the closing but pledged support for the new undertaking.

“The Foundation ... is confident the results can and will exceed our expectations,” it said.

Retired chief Lee Sexton, who mailed his membership card to the the Air Force secretary, isn’t so sure.

“This museum started off as one room in the library of the security police academy. It blossomed into a museum in an old World War II-type barracks building. We got the funds raised to renovate and brick the building. Over the years, many of us have donated artifacts, stories and history and things that are very personal and real and important to us,” Sexton said. “My big concern is that many of us loaned and donated money and items. We did not — and I repeat did not — loan or donate money and items to another museum system or program.”

In his Aug. 18 letter to James, Sexton described the museum he watched grow from its humble beginnings to an 8,000-square-foot facility, “a living tribute to the Air Force’s ground defenders, dating before the birth of our Air Force,” he said. “It was something else. It was a place security forces men and women honored our dead.”

The museum Hall of Honor memorializes security forces airmen who gave their lives in the line of duty.

“This building was our hallowed ground. It was where successive generations learned of personal and team sacrifice. It was a place lessons were learned in ground defense and force protection. Lessons paid for in blood. It was a place security forces men and women could say, ‘That’s mine. That’s who I am and who we are,’ ” Sexton wrote.

The museum, he said, was supposed to outlive him — not the other way around.

Boyd said the Hall of Honor isn’t going anywhere. And nothing is being boxed up. On the contrary, museum items stored in boxes were inventoried the week after the closing by the National Museum of the Air Force and could go on display in the future.

He plans a much more extensive exhibit honoring Jacobson.

The future center — estimated to cost $50 million — will span 85,000 square feet and stand on the north end of Lackland’s parade field. The center will be formally incorporated into the basic training curriculum, with recruits spending part of their final week there. The Airman Heritage Museum Foundation is leading the private-fundraising efforts.

Basic trainees will “meet wounded warriors, navigate scenarios, learn from veterans and see 60-plus years of tradition in one building,” AETC said in a news release.

“I see this as a really positive story,” Boyd said. “The Air Force has had a difficult time instilling its own heritage and pride in its people. The perception is we are a young service, and that we’ll never be as attuned to our history as the Army or Marines. We need to become experts in our heritage.”

The Security Forces Museum has done that for those in its career field, he said. In the new center, “they’re going to be highlighted along with every other [Air Force specialty code]. I want to make sure that message gets out.”

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