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Built on ‘firsthand stories’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Circe Olson Woessner, director of the Museum of the American Military Family, with inside-out jackets decorated by LGBT military veterans reflecting their experiences before and after the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era while on active duty and upon returning home to their communities. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

TIJERAS – It’s a symbolic home for military families who can’t go home anymore.

That’s how Circe Olson Woessner describes the Museum of the American Military Family.

The museum – next to Molly’s Bar on Old Route 66 – is a place where military “brats,” spouses and parents can share their joys and heartbreaks of their life journeys from places scattered around the globe they’ve called home.

“Every display in the museum has an aspect of sacrifice that a military family goes through,” said Woessner, the museum’s director. “Everything in here is experiential – you can open up cabinets and cupboards. There are letter jackets and clothing going back decades.”

The treasure of the place, which is a model of the inside of a military home, Woessner said, “are the firsthand stories” that can be found among the special selections library. There are more than 1,000 books, DVDs and other items about, for and by the military and military families.

Letters, photos

“We have letters, documents, telegrams and photos dating back to World War I,” she said.

Among the offerings: a letter from the Red Cross and a telegram informing a family that a soldier is missing in action during World War I.

“He actually turned up,” Woessner said. “They found him. He got separated from his unit and placed in a hospital because he was injured with poison gas.”

Another family donated photos taken by a soldier during the battle of Okinawa in World War II – images showing the harsh realities of war.

Circe Olson Woessner of the Museum of the American Military Family holds World War II photos, one of which may be among the last of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, an ex-Albuquerque resident killed in battle. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

And at least one of the photos, Woessner said, may be one of the last of legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, a former Albuquerque resident who was killed during battle.

Among the most moving items on display include art made from military clothing from veterans and military brats who struggled with addiction that comes through the struggles of war or military life.

The museum has a room that explores how families cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and disabilities caused by combat.

And there are jackets on display in an exhibit dedicated to LGBT people who have served in the military before and after the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. The jackets, most turned inside out, tell their stories through symbols, words and decorations.

Classes and programming

The Museum of the American Military Family started as an online effort in 2011 and gradually evolved into the physical presence it is now.

“We’re a working museum, so stuff we have, we are working on,” Woessner said. “Every day, we get things either sent to us or dropped off. People come back to make sure we got them.”

She came up with the idea of a museum dedicated to military families when her son, Erik, was serving in a combat zone in Iraq as an Army specialist.

“I’m a military wife. My husband’s (retired Army Lt. Col. William Woessner) been in combat, too,” she said. “I was thinking about what most moms think about: ‘Please bring my kid home. I want him to be safe.’ And I thought, around the world, military parents are worrying about their kids. And spouses and kids, as well. We have that in common. Generations have done this.”

She and several friends, who were also federal employees, worked to make it a reality.

The museum is divided into sections – or galleries – dedicated to the different aspects of military life.

Military children, spouses

A section near the entrance is devoted to military brats. Panels tell their stories of life on military installations through the decades.

Toys – including teddy bears wearing military hats and military Barbies – are on display, along with clothing and other memorabilia.

The living room and kitchen are dedicated to the lives of military spouses. Their stories – the good and the bad – are also told through panels in the area.

“Forty-one military spouses and bloggers have contributed their stories,” Woessner said.

Naturalization ceremonies have been held in the living room. There are potholders donated in honor of military moms and spouses, and mugs in the cabinets from various places where families have been stationed.

And a POW-MIA table sits in the kitchen.

“Although memorial tables abound, the reality is there are tables of all sizes that are missing loved ones, fallen people,” Woessner said.

The “Schooling With Uncle Sam” room is dedicated to the Defense Department’s school system, one of America’s largest, although many of the schools are outside the country.

Woessner’s father, Allen Dale Olson, a retired Defense Department civilian employee, served as a liaison to the school system. He is a museum volunteer.

The room contains “yearbooks and letter jackets from places like Berlin, Paris, Verdun and Tokyo,” along with documentations of stories from educators and students, Olson said.

The museum holds classes and programming for the community free of charge. It is holding a free theater camp for kids ages 8 to 14 next month.

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