View Full Version : Iraq, Afghanistan veterans bringing war to life at Quantico museum

09-29-08, 08:40 AM
Iraq, Afghanistan veterans bringing war to life at Quantico museum


The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — They answer visitors' questions as any docent would, everything from the location of the nearest restroom to casualty totals at the Battle of Belleau Wood. But fresh off the front lines, the Marines also depict war as they lived it, mostly as on-the-ground grunts: dirty, frustrating, harrowing, triumphant, with personal details that make war come alive in ways no artifact or display ever could.

Just ask Sgt. Richard Tack, 22, the barrel-chested infantryman welcoming visitors at the front door. His uniform is adorned with a Purple Heart, and fresh in his memory are the roadside bomb that blew up his Humvee during his first Iraq tour and the bullet that went clear through his calf in the second.

He's one of 11 active duty Marine veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on staff at the National Museum of the Marine Corps who serve not only as greeters and guides but also as living reminders that war is an ever-present reality. In the almost two years since the $90 million museum opened outside Quantico in suburban Prince William County, Va., they have become exhibits themselves, providing glimpses of war for a public that has been largely unaffected by it.

From the design of the building, which evokes the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, to the Korean War exhibit, where the temperature is kept in the 50s to mimic the harsh winter of 1950, the museum strives to make its depiction of nearly 250 years of history as authentic as possible. But to the surprise of some officials, one of the biggest attractions has become the Marines who lived through the nation's current conflicts and are taking a breather before returning to the front.

"Who better to represent that history than the Marines who were there?" said Maj. Sean Stewart, the museum's operations officer.

When talking to a visitor about the day he was shot, Tack was quick to point out that one of the first people on the scene was "this gentleman right here," his buddy, Cpl. Mark Wangler, who works at the museum, too.

They were manning a remote outpost near Habbaniyah, about to go out on patrol to root out insurgents, when the insurgents attacked first. Tack went down, and as Wangler sprang to his aid, a dump truck laden with explosives blew up in front of the gate of their base. Wangler was knocked to the ground but got up, his ears ringing, and ran to his friend.

Tack was lying face down, unconscious, but he came to when Wangler rolled him over. "They shot me!" Tack groused, more angry than scared.

He spent a month recuperating, then went back to the base.

"I thought they were going to send him to Germany and then home," Wangler told Russell Tuck, a retired college president visiting from Gainesville, Va.

But Tack had to get back to his fellow Marines. "We were a pretty tight group," he explained. "In my mind, I was hanging them out to dry while I was in the rear."

Tuck said his chat with the Marines was the best part of his visit. "I'm just fascinated with these guys," he said. "I'd rather talk to them than anything else."

Many of the museum's visitors are veterans, too, from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and see in the tour guides younger versions of themselves. During one of Wangler's tours, there was the elderly man in a wheelchair who, when entering the World War II exhibit of the Battle of Iwo Jima, informed Wangler that he had been there as a young corporal.

"Seeing him as a fragile old man, it was hard to imagine him hiking up Iwo Jima," Wangler said. "And he said to me, 'You're so young I can't believe you've been to Iraq twice.' "

They expected to be ambassadors for the corps, the public face of a war few understand like they do. But they didn't expect visitors to open up the way they sometimes do.

One Vietnam veteran told Cpl. Michael Bustamante, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, that he doesn't talk about Vietnam with anyone, not even his family. But it haunts him every day, he confided, Marine to Marine, vet to vet. How, he wanted to know, was Bustamante doing? How was he handling the stress of combat now that he was home?

Bustamante told him that he had been in combat and had seen some pretty awful stuff. No need to get into detail. But he was doing all right. The key, he said, was communication.

"You've got to talk about it," Bustamante recalled telling him. "Talk about it with everybody. Let it out."

At the "Making Marines" exhibit, where visitors can try on a backpack that weighs up to 120 pounds to get a sense of what recruits have to endure, Bustamante sometimes offers his own experience of what boot camp was like: "I was so traumatized I didn't talk to anyone but my drill instructor for the first month." And nearby, in the Global War on Terrorism exhibit, he and his fellow Marines were able to spot something that wasn't quite right.

"That photo had to be staged," Wangler said while looking a photograph of a Marine sniper aiming at a building. A sniper would never have allowed so much light to shine in on him, easily giving away his position, he said.

Every Marine working at the museum does so by choice. Tack said it was a chance to indulge his interest in history and to explore something other than "the grunt life." But it is a temporary post, three years tops, and the Marines know they could be deployed overseas at a moment's notice.

The museum is filled with history they try to make come alive, and they could even donate some of their equipment for the terrorism exhibit. But not yet. They are not ready for their uniforms and guns to be sealed behind a glass partition, relegated to the annals of history.

Their war is not over yet.